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January 22, 2024 Focus: Legislative Preview

Working group prepares recommendations to reform state’s historic property redevelopment review process

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED State Rep. Stephen Meskers co-chairs a working group tasked with recommending changes to the State Historic Preservation Office’s historic property redevelopment review process.

A working group tasked with reviewing the state’s role in approving tax credits and grants for the redevelopment of historic properties — a process some developers and municipal officials say is too burdensome and unpredictable and can significantly delay or even block economic development projects — is preparing to roll out recommendations that could become a hot topic during this year’s legislative session.

The working group was created in 2023 by the state legislature, which considered, but did not pass, a bill that would have created a third-party appeals process for decisions made by the State Historic Preservation Office.

That office, known as SHPO, administers a range of federal and state programs that identify, register and protect historic buildings. It also oversees the state’s historic rehabilitation tax credit program, a crucial funding source used by developers and municipalities to finance property redevelopments, including some of the office-to-apartment conversions that have occurred in downtown Hartford.

The program offers a 25% tax credit on qualified rehab expenditures. A federal historic rehabilitation tax credit is also available.

While acknowledging the importance of the group, some developers, town planners and economic development officials have run into disagreements with SHPO regarding demands to qualify for historic property redevelopment tax credits, ranging from material selection to style of renovation, and the overall length of the approval process.

These demands tend to hold up some projects, make them more expensive, and in some cases nix plans before they even get off the ground, critics argue.

Spectra Pearl is a $50.6 million downtown Hartford redevelopment project that used $3 million in historic tax credits to convert two derelict commercial properties, at 101 and 111 Pearl St., into 258 studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments.

Last year’s bill would have given developers and/or municipalities the ability to appeal decisions made by SHPO to the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD), which would act as a third-party mediator.

However, the bill faced opposition from SHPO and numerous historic preservation advocates, and didn’t get legislative support.

Instead, lawmakers created the working group, which has met several times and consists of legislators, town leaders, historic preservation experts and others.

State Rep. Stephen Meskers (D-Greenwich) co-chairs the working group alongside Sen. Joan Hartley (D-Waterbury). The two lawmakers also co-chair the Commerce Committee.

Meskers said the working group will likely reach a consensus on formal recommendations ahead of the 2024 session’s start on Feb. 7, and he envisions the Commerce Committee drafting a bill based on that work.

Meskers wouldn’t share full details on possible recommendations, but he did say a primary focus is quickening and clarifying SHPO’s decision-making process.

Meskers said he’d like to see an instructional checklist created that would clearly outline SHPO’s requirements for grant and tax credit recipients. He also supports the creation of an appeals process, something used by other states with their historic preservation offices.

“What we want to do is to document the SHPO process, the iterative nature of the dialogue, and want to expedite where possible and reconcile where possible the decision-making so that it looks more linear and less arbitrary,” Meskers said. “A majority of the projects seem to be resolved on a straightforward basis, but there are a number of bigger projects that have seemed to get tied up in a maze. We just want to make sure that we clear the clutter and get resolution.”

Municipal concerns

During a working group meeting held in late November, Bridgewater First Selectman Curtis Read detailed the approximately five-year saga of trying to tear down the 1850s-era Bridgewater Grange Hall building, formerly located at 11 Main Street South, to make room for a new community center.

The building, throughout its history, served as a school, meeting house and even a town hall, but sat vacant for years and fell into disrepair. It was torn down in 2022, after several years of SHPO-related delays, Read said, prompted by the property’s placement on the National Register of Historic Places.

Read said SHPO told the town it couldn’t immediately move forward with demolition if there was notable opposition. While only a handful of people locally spoke out against demolishing the building, an online petition in opposition was signed by people all across the country and submitted to the town, he said.

SHPO considered that an “adequate reason” to delay demolition and asked the town to explore ways to reuse and revitalize the property, Read said.

That, and other delays, put the brakes on a new community center project, as construction costs soared during the intervening years. Instead, the town is working to develop a park on the site, Read said.

“I’m not trashing SHPO, I understand their role,” Read said during the November working group meeting. “It was frustrating for us because we didn’t really know the process, and I think the process is probably somewhat arbitrary in how they preserve historic buildings. I just think there needs to be a little more transparency and a little more respect for local communities’ needs.”

Randy Collins

Randy Collins, public policy and advocacy associate director at the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, a group that represents cities and towns, said the SHPO process isn’t an issue in a lot of cases, but there are some “occurrences where it was really slowing down development projects.”

“Historic preservation is important — people care about that aspect of their town,” Collins said. “But at the same time, the whole thought is that historic preservation can’t be to the detriment of economic development or moving forward.”

Referring to the Bridgewater project, Collins said town officials and residents were frustrated over the SHPO process because it generally “wasn’t very clear.” Providing transparency and consistency to decision-making is important, he said.

Meeting redevelopment project timelines is also crucial, Collins emphasized, because delays impact costs.

“The longer that you sit on these projects waiting to go through the legal process, you’re paying for all these rising costs, before you’re seeing a return on investment,” Collins said.

CCM is advocating for an appeals process to SHPO decisions. Or, it wants SHPO’s decision-making process overhauled to include more local input.

David Griggs

David Griggs, president and CEO of the MetroHartford Alliance, said his organization typically interacts with SHPO when one of its members is working on a project that falls into the group’s purview.

While acknowledging SHPO plays an important role in preserving Connecticut’s history, especially in a city that’s approaching 400 years old, Griggs said he also advocates for an appeals process.

SHPO’s point of view

In testimony to the Commerce Committee last March, Jonathan Kinney, state historic preservation officer and director of operations for the State Historic Preservation Office, defended his organization’s role.

He wrote that “SHPO does not view historic preservation and economic development as two opposite ends of a spectrum,” and that its historic tax credit program “is devoted to putting underutilized or vacant buildings into use.”

During fiscal year 2022, SHPO approved over $27 million for the rehabilitation of historic buildings that leveraged nearly $93 million of private investment, he said.

According to DECD’s annual report, SHPO issued $18.1 million in historic rehabilitation tax credits in fiscal 2022 to nine recipients.

In terms of its regulatory review process, SHPO comments on approximately 3,000 projects a year. “Of those, less than 3% result in an opinion of adverse effect,” Kinney said.

He added that as an office created through federal legislation and receiving funds through federal appropriations, SHPO is “bound to administering our programs according to federal processes, guidelines, and protocols.”

A new third-party appeals process could result in decisions that conflict with national guidelines or standards, he warned.

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