Take Action To Preserve Main Street
Antiques & The Arts Weekly Editor Greg Smith opines on the value of preserving the character of Newtown’s Main Street. Antiques & The Arts Weekly is a publication of the Bee Publishing Company.
When I bought my home within the Historic District last year, I saw within the zoning regulations that I was required by the Borough to submit an application if I wished to change anything on the exterior of the home. I wanted to put up a five-foot fence for the safety of my children and dog, so I called the Borough and we put a date on the books for them to come out. Two burgesses came to my home and started walking the line where I wanted the fence to run. Their main concern, they said — and this is important, so ears up — was in the visual effect that my five-foot-high fence would have from the street. One burgess walked all the way down to the road so that they could stand from the vantage point of a walker or a driver, and the other burgess remained at the fence line and held their hand about chest height, indicating the height that my posts would reach. Whether I was required to submit that application was “discretionary,” I was told by the burgesses, based on how visible this fence was. It was partly hidden by trees, so they deemed it non-threatening to the aesthetic of our town, non-threatening to the visual standard that Newtown supposedly tries to maintain within its Historic District. The fence stands today.
Folks — the current development proposal at the Inn [at Newtown, 19 Main Street] is talking about altering Newtown’s skyline.
May that give you pause. It should give the Borough warden Jay Maher and the other burgesses direct pause, because it will be their legacy if it is approved.
The Historic District is the most important strip of land in Newtown. It contains a swathe of the town’s oldest homes dating back to the Eighteenth Century. With them come our history and, in some of the homes, legend. The current proposal is speaking to perhaps one of the most important properties within the Historic District: the home of Mary Hawley, the great benefactress of Newtown and responsible for so many of the very best things about it, Ram Pasture being the very crown of the Historic District. That was Mary Hawley’s land and was donated from her estate. The reason there is a standing Edmond Town Hall or the Hawley School that educated so many of Newtown’s children — that’s because of her.
And how do we intend to repay her? By allowing her home to be knocked down for development. A historic home within the Historic District. For profit. Because the town sat on its hands, leaving it to high hope, instead the crows and vultures came. It was within everyone’s great wish that someone would move into the Inn and revive it under its existing footprint. To his credit, Jim Gaston warned all, and he was removed from his post as warden for it. Instead, the proposal is to knock down the Inn for an apartment complex. It’s a non-starter.
The Historic District is, and I say this without doubt, the only remaining element in this town that connects it to the New England aesthetic. The others, all of Church Hill Road, are completely lost — the result of poor zoning regulations and subsequent upon subsequent upon subsequent know-nothing zoning officials who seem to care nothing — absolutely nothing — for the way a New England town should actually look. More concrete, more parking lots, more strip malls. Mute the outrage and repeat.
What value can we prescribe a feeling in the 21st Century? It seems, both legally and regrettably, not much. But how much is Historic Main Street worth? How much is the “look” of it worth, the “feeling” one gets when they walk down the street and see historic homes from some of Newtown’s oldest and most recognizable figures? Perhaps it is easier to see where you land if I were to pose this: take Federal Road in Brookfield and lay it over our Main Street; which would you prefer? When you arrive at the obvious, break down why you love Main Street, and I assure you none of the answers are going to be a three- or four-story apartment complex. You’ll see the flagpole, Ram Pasture, the Curtis House, Edmond Town Hall among the answers. Folks celebrated their wedding receptions at the Inn. That home has been fielding our town’s visitors for hundreds of years. That is us, guys. That’s Newtown.
Main Street is so beautiful that it is the subject of artwork. It has a club of photographers laser focused on just the flagpole. Ask yourself: will Jim Chillington return to paint the apartment complex? Will its parking lot inspire the mind? Maybe artists will come for the second or third story staircase, with its fire-retardant carpeting. Or will it be erased from the visual memory? A stain that artists and their commissioners paint out of their compositions, as if to say, “Erase that hideous error from our minds, may it never be the true image of Newtown.”
The Historic District does not contain just the façade of history, as the Borough would have you believe with its gap-toothed regulations — it is beautiful and authentic because of what it is: a historic village. Devoid of modernity, for the most part. And absent of the blatant and ugly commercialism that this entire project represents.
If this were allowed, why keep the Historic District intact at all? What teeth will you have when owners say they want to rip down their home and make a contemporary glass cube? Or to change the zoning of their residence to commercial? Or put a gas station at The Pleasance? Ram Pasture is ripe for a strip mall. You will have lost everything.
Perhaps the Borough should adopt stronger regulations within the Historic District. If this developer can propose a zoning rule to allow their project’s existence, can’t one be proposed to prevent the very same thing? If we’re going to add regulations to the code, let us add the right ones that preserve our town and its heritage.
Will the apartments provide value for this town that could not otherwise be met by one of the other apartment complexes springing up around? And is that value equal to or greater than the preservation of Mary Hawley’s home? The judgment is so very clear: it is so far below that. The value is so unequal that the consideration of this proposal is painful. It flows into the absurd.
You only ever hear the phrase “ancestral land” from Native Americans. 21st Century Americans don’t say it much — we bop around a lot — but given the age of our town, it can certainly apply. For over 300 years, Newtown has put forth generations of descendants that go back on this land, folks who walked and drove along the very same Main Street that you do today, dotted with the very homes that existed back then and bookended by Hawley Pond on one end and the Hillbrow House on the other. This matter deserves your attention. The Historic District is our ancestral land.
I was held to a standard when I put up a fence, while this development is talking about knocking down one of our landmarks. My, my, my. I can’t help but to consider the “discretion” that must be the foundation of the mental gymnastics required to consider this a good idea.
At the end of the day, this building is still standing. There is time, and you are needed.
Planning & Zoning is taking letters through October 17 at newtown-ct.gov/planning-zoning-commission/webforms/contact-planning-and-zoning-commission.
This population density is not consistent within the Borough, and it should be declined.
Please turn up to save the feeling of our Historic Main Street, which is so much more valuable than the profit that this developer will make. Send your letters in now and attend the Thursday, October 17, P&Z meeting at 7:30 pm.
72 Main Street