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Monday, May 12, 2008

Historic District meeting tonight

Edgehill residents to meet on district plan

By Randall Beach
Register Staff
NEW HAVEN
— Virtually all residents of the city’s St. Ronan-Edgehill area are proud of their generally attractive, beautifully maintained and valuable properties. But they don’t all agree on the best way to protect and preserve their homes.
In a reprise of the battle that divided neighbors in 1989-90, proponents of establishing a Local Historic District are facing off against those who see district regulations as meddlesome, costly and unnecessary.
A large crowd is expected to gather at 7 tonight in the Celentano School cafeteria for a public hearing that will doubtless feature some emotional arguments on both sides. The neighborhood is not expected to vote on the issue for at least another two or three months.
Both sides seem optimistic their side will prevail. But proponents are aware they must garner “Yes” votes from two-thirds of property owners who vote, and that in 1990 the same proposal was defeated when only 49 percent voted in favor. The earlier proposal was for an area somewhat smaller than the current envisioned district, which would include about 280 properties.
Advocates such as Karen Orzack-Moore, co-chairwoman of the Local Historic District Study Committee, believe things will be different this time because now there is more concern about teardowns and construction of giant, ugly so-called “McMansions” that have invaded other neighborhoods nationwide.
Orzack-Moore said her committee, which has been studying the issue for several years, found 18 endangered lots in the district.
“You don’t want to wake up one day and see a front-loader across the street from you,” said Orzack-Moore, who lives on Huntington Street.
But Cindy Leffell, whose house is on St. Ronan Street, has also been researching the historic district issue. Leffell, a real estate appraiser, disputes assertions by district boosters that the designation would increase property values.
“I’m afraid it’ll hurt property values because people will think it’s restrictive,” she said.
Opponents such as Leffell are worried about what they call the “taste police,” members of a New Haven Historic District Commission that would be authorized to rule on applications from property owners who want to make changes to their houses.
Those property owners would have to pay an $85 fee to file for a Certificate of Appropriateness and then defend their proposed alteration at a hearing.
Leffell noted the list of items that would require a certificate, including fences, walls, driveways, satellite dishes and outdoor lighting fixtures, if they are visible from the street or sidewalk.
“I don’t need somebody to tell me what’s ‘appropriate,’” Leffell said. “We’re smart enough to protect our investment. Who knows who’s going to be on the commission? We’d be putting ourselves in the hands of somebody we haven’t elected.”
Leffell said her cement driveway is cracked and needs to be replaced. She and her husband, David Leffell, would like to use asphalt, but any change of material would require a certificate if the historic district designation goes into effect.
Nor is Leffell persuaded the neighborhood is threatened by outside developers. “I don’t want to surrender my property rights for a ‘what if something might happen in the future’ rationale.”
But Orzack-Moore considers district regulations “a modest burden for larger, grander issues” such as architectural preservation and stability.
She said a certificate would not be needed for installing storm windows or window air conditioners or “like with like” replacements of windows, doors and fixtures. “You can paint your house orange,” she noted, without a certificate.
New Haven already has three Local Historic Districts: at Wooster Square, City Point and the Quinnipiac River neighborhood. The City Plan Commission noted this when it endorsed a district designation for St. Ronan-Edgehill in an advisory report.
City Plan Executive Director Karyn Gilvarg said the three existing historic districts have been “quite successful,” as have others nationwide. “They stabilize neighborhoods and increase property values.”
Gilvarg added, “The value goes way beyond the current property owner’s tenure.”
Chris Ozyck, a civic activist who lives in the Quinnipiac River district, said district guidelines might be “onerous” for some families, but overall, the designation has been good for his neighborhood.
“Where it’s most effective is for any new developments,” Ozyck said. “There’s a level of oversight and integration. I think it helps keep the integrity of the neighborhood.”
Should the St. Ronan-Edgehill property owners give two-thirds approval, the district idea would then go to the Board of Aldermen and back to the City Plan Commission.
Randall Beach can be reached at rbeach@nhregister.com or 789-5766.

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