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Mystic history demolished to make way for a parking lot

I think of the Scheer family, which has lived in and cared for the 1844 home of sea captain Simeon Haley in downtown Mystic for more than 40 years, as maybe one of the most egregious examples of Stonington planning and zoning enforcement gone bad.

Three years ago, the Scheers and other neighbors were planning to mobilize to try to stop the demolition of two houses on their residential block of Haley Street, one a contributing building to the neighborhood's listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

They thought a written policy of the town to require a 90-day waiting period before demolition permits are granted would give them time.

But before they could act, the bulldozers swept in suddenly one morning and turned the houses to rubble.

The plan, by the owners of the nearby Whaler's Inn, was to use the vacant lots on the residential street as a parking lot for their commercial businesses nearby.

The Scheers, instead of looking at residential housing across the street from their own handsome sea captain's house, built by a hero of the defense of Stonington Borough in the War of 1812, were looking at the back of the rooms of the inn, which they said looked like a cruise ship when lit up at night.

The first selectman at the time, Rob Simmons, said he could have intervened when a building official eliminated a longstanding written policy of 90-day-waiting-periods for demolitions, but chose not to.

Simmons agreed with the inn's lawyer, William Sweeney, who had said the written policy for a waiting period that the neighbors had been relying on was not enshrined in a town ordinance, and the building official was within his rights when he eliminated the longstanding written demolition waiting policy on the same day he signed the demolition permits for 1 and 3 Haley St.

At first it looked like the buildings were torn down for naught because the town eventually ruled against using the empty lots on residential Haley Street for parking for the commercial inn.

But there is a new plan to create the parking lot on Haley with a different legal entity, Whalers Inn RE LLC, that now owns the Odd Fellows commercial and residential building adjacent to the inn and next to the Haley Street lots.

The plan, which the Planning and Zoning Commission will consider at a hearing April 6, is to create a parking lot for the Odd Fellows Building, which has existed for decades without one that large.

The claim by the applicant is that the new lot will be used only by the Odd Fellows building, not the inn, even though it will be built immediately alongside the inn parking lot.

There's a lot of winking going on here, but I hope the commissioners look at the underlying crime against this neighborhood, which is a remaining firewall protecting some of the surviving historic character of Mystic from rampant development.

When I caught up this week with Bill Scheer, who has been furloughed during the pandemic from his job as a blacksmith interpreter at Mystic Seaport Museum, he was reviewing planning and zoning rules, preparing to take on a skilled and determined developer's lawyer as best he can.

He seems to have found some interesting objections to raise.

I wish him well and would urge anyone who cares about preserving the character of Mystic to sign on to the virtual meeting April 6 and chime in.

It's hard to imagine how anyone could suggest that it is acceptable in Stonington, a town that owes its tourism economy to its historic character, to tear down two buildings, one listed as a contributing element to a National Register district, forever ruining the streetscape and character of a fine 19th-century residential neighborhood, to lay down a parking lot.

I promise it wouldn't happen in places like Newport, Nantucket or Martha's Vineyard, where they know not to kill the golden goose of the historic character of their communities for the sake of helping developers out to make a buck.

This is the opinion of David Collins

d.collins@theday.com

 

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