Milford board says ‘no’ to demolishing historic home; developer will appeal

The David Baldwin House at 67 Prospect St. in Milford

The David Baldwin House at 67 Prospect St. in Milford

The attorney for a developer seeking to demolish the historic David Baldwin house to build apartments and offices said Tuesday, March 20, that his client will appeal the Milford Historic Preservation Commission’s decision to deny the project a “certificate of appropriateness” to move forward.

The attorney, Dominick J. Thomas Jr. of the firm Cohen Thomas in Derby, said they also are considering “challenging the statutory authority” of the commission, created in March 2015. The commission held its first meeting in December 2017, Thomas said.

“They ignored evidence and based the decision on conjecture,” Thomas said of the decision.

On Thomas’ speculation the statutory authority of the commission might be challenged, Mayor Ben Blake defended it and said he believes it would hold up if “scrutinized.”

Commission Chairman William Silver declined comment because of the possibility of the case moving into the legal arena.

The public hearing where the proposal was denied was held Monday and attended by some 100 people who showed up to protest the plan for the David Baldwin House at 67 Prospect St., which is in a national historic district, but not among the 348 properties protected on the state’s official historic district list.

Part of the community protest, including a petition with 3,000 signatures and many comments, stems from parts of the property believed to be sacred burial ground of some of the city’s earliest settlers.

That burial ground was believed to be in Peter Prudden’s garden on the property, but there are no markers because that is often how it was done in those days, local historians have said. First United Church of Christ has unofficial records of the burial ground. Prudden, a settler of Milford, was the first pastor of First United Church of Christ.

Thomas’ client wants to build a three-story building with 44 one-bedroom apartments on two floors and office space on the other. Upon questioning, Thomas Monday told commission members it wouldn’t be “economically feasible” to restore or rehab the current structure and build the multi-family in back.

The project has the approval of the Inland-Wetlands Commission, but hasn’t yet gone before the Planning and Zoning Board. The plan has no chance of coming to fruition unless the Milford Historic Preservation Commission’s plan is approved or unless it’s found not to have authority.

The commission is charged with issuing a “certificate of appropriateness” for changes to historic properties not listed in one of Milford’s two state historic districts. The certificate is needed for building, altering, restoring, moving or demolishing any building in those areas.

Thomas said that would even apply to residents who want to put up siding or change their windows.

Thomas said the property is in a historic district the city created, but not part of the state historic district on the state’s historic district registry.

Thomas said his client is likely to challenge the statutory authority of the commission. He used the word “strange” to describe the workings of the commission and said it appears they are using their authority to circumvent existing statutes.

But in an email, Blake wrote: “Milford’s ordinance was adopted as a result of a State enabling act (PA 13-181) that specifically authorizes any municipality to “Protect the historic or architectural character of properties or districts that are listed or under consideration for listing on, the National Register of Historic Places … or the State Register of Historic Places.”

Blake said that in drafting the language for the local legislation, “Milford turned to the model Historic Preservation Ordinance prepared and vetted by the CT Trust for Historic Preservation” — the same organization which proposed the enabling act for the Connecticut General Assembly in 2013.

The Rev. Adam Eckhart, pastor of First United Church of Christ, among those who spoke against the proposal Monday, expressed his happiness over the decision on Facebook. In a letter to the editor in a local paper urging residents to attend the hearing, Eckhart summed it up this way:

“The people who own 67 Prospect Street likely have the natural motive to make a profit on the property. First Church and I wish them well as neighbors. But as a covenantal democracy, where one person’s decision can make an impact on the community, we can take ownership of our voices and to speak truth to power in love. The truth is that we enjoy our freedoms in large part due to trailblazers like Rev. Peter Prudden and those who lived alongside him and were buried by him. It’s our turn to honor them and their legacy of covenant by urging that 67 Prospect be protected.”

Local historian Richard Platt — who was Milford’s city historian for many years — said burial grounds are protected, but because there are no stone markers, it’s impossible to prove that about the site.

Platt has said some of those buried in Prudden’s garden may have had temporary wooden markers, not stone memorials because that was considered vain, he said.