ST. ALBANS CITY — Both sides rested Wednesday in the appeal of the Connor Group’s permit for the demolition of the former Smith Homestead and Owl Club on Maiden Lane, and the construction proposal for a new office building.
Vermont Environmental Court Judge Thomas Durkin, who presided yesterday, will rule on the building’s future, which has been the subject of a community debate regarding preservation of historical sites and structures. During yesterday’s hearing, the judge raised concerns about whether it was already too late to save the structure.
Durkin is expected to receive all post-trial court filings by the end of the month, and issue his ruling soon afterward.
The Connor Group purchased the property in 2012, intending to build an 11,500-square-foot office building in place of the historic home of 19th Century industrialist and politician John Smith. A Development Review Board (DRB) permit was challenged by the appellants, who were seeking to either preserve the existing building or alter the new building in ways they believe will make it a better fit for the neighborhood.
At the conclusion of the trial, Durkin said he had not heard any new evidence likely to change his view of the condition of the existing building. After several days of testimony and a tour of the building, Durkin declined last November to issue a stay of demolition.
In particular, Durkin was concerned about the mold infestation in the building. He wondered aloud whether a contractor would take on the job of removing the infestation and would then stand behind that work and say, “You no longer have a mold problem.”
“It concerns me that this very important historic structure was most likely lost 15 to 20 years ago,” said Durkin.
Appellants Sue Prent and Peter Ford each took the stand to voice their objections to the project. Prent spoke of the impact more traffic would have on Maiden Lane and her family’s access to their property. Their driveway is on Maiden Lane. She also expressed concern about the process by which the Connor Group received its city permits and whether the building would fit with the rest of the neighborhood.
“I think it’s completely disrespectful of the historic character both of the neighborhood and the building it will replace,” said Prent.
The other buildings on Maiden Lane are brick, she pointed out.
“It looks like a box with a couple of other things added to it,” Prent said of the proposed building. “It’s clearly not architect-designed.”
In his testimony, Fred Connor pointed to the gables and the elliptical louvered vents as echoing the design of the original building. Connor also noted that the building will be farther from neighboring properties than the current building, and is roughly the same distance from the road as the Leahy building on the other end of Maiden Lane.
“The overarching question is: what was the intent of the statutes?” Prent said. “Has this project respected and satisfied those rules? I don’t think it has.” Allowing the DRB’s decision to stand would be a disservice to the rules, she added.
Durkin intervened during her testimony to say that while he values the opinions of those who live in the neighborhood, his rulings must be based on facts. Specifically, he asked for information on “whether the proposed new building satisfies the specific criterion in the ordinance.”
Prent pointed to Section 603.4a, which says developments must be harmonious with the neighborhood. “It’s not. It’s just not,” she said.
When Ford was asked what sections of the ordinances he believed the project does not comply with, he pointed to the section regarding demolition. He did not point to any specific sections of the city’s design guidelines, and present an argument for non-compliance.
Ford pointed out the loss of the front and side lawns. The shape of the current building creates a side lawn, which will not exist with the proposed building. A plan for diagonal parking in front of the building will take up much of the front lawn.
Ford also expressed concern that there will be increased traffic at the intersection of Congress and Main streets.
Sam Ruggiano, of Ruggiano Engineering, took the stand very briefly to describe the potential traffic impact. Because the building has no tenants lined up, he looked at a range of possible uses. The lowest traffic use would generate less traffic than the previous use of social club, while the highest traffic use would result in three more trips during the peak hour, he testified.
The first witness yesterday was Suzanne Jamele, a historic preservationist who runs a private consulting business in Plainfield. She is the preservationist the Connor Group hired to write a 46-page report that documents the architectural value of the Smith House. The documentation is required under the city’s ordinances whenever an applicant seeks to demolish an historic building. However, it was not provided until the trial. The DRB originally granted the permit without the documentation having been provided.
Jamele was at the Smith House on Nov.20, 2013 to do her documentation work. As part of her job, Jamele was looking for the building’s architecture, previous inhabitants, and history that made it significant.
In addition to giving examples of those findings, such as the house’s Federal style architecture and Queen Anne style wrap-around porch, its former inhabitant John Smith, and Smith’s role in Vermont politics and industry, Jamele pointed out that the Smith House is on the National Register of Historic Places. By default, that label makes the building “historically significant.”
Despite its apparent significance, Jamele added that being on the National Register has no effect on whether historic buildings can or cannot be demolished. That decision lies within the community, Jamele said. In addition, her report was not intended to give an opinion one way or another on the demolition, she said.
“This was purely to record the building,” Jamele said. “It would not necessarily stop it from being demolished.”
Though Jamele stated her report was purely for documentation, the second witness to the stand, architect Thomas Keefe, of Keefe and Wesner Architects of Middlebury, questioned whether Jamele’s report was limited.
Keefe, who specializes in historic preservation, went into the Smith House himself in October of 2013 and followed up with a report on the condition of the building. After seeing Jamele’s report, he critiqued it and asked for further information.
“It’s a documentation and an analysis that leads to a conclusion,” Keefe said. “It’s not wrong, it’s just not complete.”
However, William Fead, attorney for the Connor Group, pointed out that Jamele was not writing the report to determine whether the building should be demolished. Judge Durkin added that the report was contracted with the pre-condition that the building was expected to be demolished.
Keefe continued to discuss both with Fead and the appellants’ attorney, Paul Gillies, the sufficiency of Jamele’s report. While Keefe did concede that the report was, in the end, sufficient, he expressed some of the limits it had, including not taking the Maiden Lane historical neighborhood into special consideration when assessing the Smith House’s significance.
“In the historic preservation world, the context of the building is part of assessing the significance of the building,” Keefe said. He pointed out that the Smith House was one of 117 buildings in the St. Albans City Historical District, and with incremental loss of these structures, the overall historical significance of the district goes down.