Save a building, destroy a neighborhood?
By Barry Rimler
The last act of a drama promises to play out Thursday night as the Vernon Planning and Zoning Commission prepares to vote on a zoning amendment that, if ratified, will create a permanent mechanism to allow arbitrary suspension of the zoning regulations within Rockville’s Historic District.
If this sounds like the work of a special interest, you’re right. In this case the special interest is an out-of-town developer who got a good bargain, during the recession, of a rather large house in the middle of the Historic District that had fallen on hard times.
The developer’s last publicly stated intention is to renovate the property with greater than the 11 or 12 apartment units that might be allowed by present zoning regulations, to serve a tenant population carrying federal housing vouchers.
This type of intense development promises to be a Great Recession bonanza, created by the immediate misfortunes of the prospective tenants, which will be placed squarely on the back of taxpayers courtesy of our federal government. The only entity that stands in the way is the Vernon Planning and Zoning Commission.
The city of Rockville is a city in name only. Like many smaller Connecticut cities, Rockville has long since given up self-government and instead become part of the largely suburban town of Vernon. Mergers like this were common after World War II, and affirmed a powerful shift to the suburbs, even though in the case of Rockville the suburbs might mean another neighborhood less than a mile away.
What got left behind in small cities like Rockville were soon to be designated as historical neighborhoods, which by today’s standards are an odd mix of large homes on small pieces of property and small homes on even smaller pieces of land.
With a predominance of owner occupancy, the Rockville Historic District was largely left untouched by heavy government regulation, and a natural condition of diversity has flourished in the Historic District. The old housing stock is as different as the people who live in each house.
You begin to understand this historic district if you look at the neighborhood as a community of artists, each living in their own “work-in-progress.” Home ownership and the stabilizing effect of individual effort toward an unspoken common mission cannot be underestimated.
The house at the corner of Prospect Street and Ellington Avenue, at the center of the controversy, is an early 1900s residence of no single discernable architectural style. What stands out is its 8,000-plus square-foot size, which places it among the largest homes in the immediate vicinity of other large homes.
It was one of the McMansions of its day — a large, poorly built (which has a lot to do with its present state of disrepair) testimony to an exceptional instance of disposable wealth at a singular moment in history.
Being old does not make something “historical.” This house is as unremarkable as the McMansions of the pre-2008 recession economy. Many of these present McMansions sit empty and foreclosed — as empty as this early 1900 house is today.
History has a way of repeating itself, and while there is little sympathy for the plight of the present day “McMansion” its 100-year-old cousin has attracted the misplaced sympathy of our government, despite the testimony and warnings of homeowners, within the Rockville Historic District who recognize that homeowners, not houses, make for good neighborhoods.
As a practical matter, a neighborhood of owner-occupants can absorb the negative consequences of a few boarded up houses more easily than the difficulties posed by the exceptional level of rental-unit density that the proposed zoning change is intended to enable.
Despite the experience of the Great Recession, homeownership still matters, if not as the American Dream, then as the cornerstone of viable neighborhoods.
In this neighborhood, of predominantly one- and two-family owner-occupied homes, this large old house, and houses like it, have never seen such intensive residential use.
The pending zoning amendment can seem like a tantalizing option for this and a sizable number of other large-scale buildings whose owners wish to maximize their economic potential with the complicity of government funds. All of this will be to the detriment of the neighborhood.
The promise of bank financing for the private restoration of large houses, with the underlying backing of tax dollars from afar, might seem like great public policy — except nothing really costs as much as it does when there are entitlements or the promise of government subsidies.
Ultimately, the “unintended consequences” exact a heavy toll. The regulation proposed by this developer conspires to cheapen the efforts of homeowners who have played by the rules and maintained and improved their properties over time.
The preposterous notion that renovations must be undertaken as a single “all or nothing” effort by “skilled developers” seems to ignore the value of individual initiative and sweat equity as vital components of the dividend producing currency of “self determination.”
In the end, all taxpayers end up paying for the very policies that destroy this and other similar neighborhoods.
The Vernon Planning and Zoning Commission has a choice: whether it’s worth it to fix a house and risk enabling the destruction of the neighborhood.
Barry Rimler is an industrial systems designer, and 28-year homeowner and resident of the Historic District.
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