Fairfield church under pressure to replace historic roof

FAIRFIELD — When the slate roof at First Church Congregational needed replacing back in 2007, the decision was made to replace it with a mix of natural and manufactured red slate. For the church, it was way to save money.

The Historic District Commission, however, didn’t agree, rejecting the application for a certificate of appropriateness that was filed after the roof work was complete several times. At the time, church officials said the estimated $250,000 cost to replace the roof in natural slate would eat up most of its budget for the year.

They had used recycled natural slate was used on the south roof, which faces the Old Post Road. The manufactured slate was used on the north roof.

First Church, in addition to having been at the corner of Beach and Old Post Road long before the Old Post Road Historic District was established, was one of the driving forces behind the town’s first — and only — homeless shelter, Operation Hope.

Unswayed by the church’s argument, the Historic District Commission issued an order in 2008 that the manufactured polymeric slate on the roof that faces toward the Post Road could remain until August 12, 2016. If not replaced with natural red slate by that date, the church would face fines of $100 a day.

“The effects of the recession were not fully known in February, 2009,” said attorney William Fitzpatrick, who represents the church, “and it has had an impact.” As a result, Fitzpatrick said, the church has been unable to amass the $250,000 it would need to replace the synthetic roof.

And, he said, they have had to make repairs to the existing slate roof, and more are needed. “There is a leak that has to be repaired,” Fitzpatrick said.

So, Fitzpatrick went back to the Historic District Commission earlier this month, asking for a 10-year extension. That plea fell on deaf ears, and the commission unanimously denied the request.

According to the minutes, granting an extension was not an action permitted under state statutes since there had been no finding that a strict application of the relevant statutes would result in “exceptional, practical difficulty or undue hardship by reason of topographical conditions, district borderline situations or because of other unusual circumstances solely with respect to a certain parcel of land and not affecting generally the district in which it is situated.”

Now, Fitzpatrick has filed an appeal in state Superior Court in Bridgeport, claiming the June 9 hearing was fundamentally unfair because the commission introduced documentary evidence without advance notice to the church. In addition, the appeal states, the author of that evidence was not at the hearing and therefore could not be questioned by the applicant.

Fitzpatrick also found another flaw. According to the appeal, there was no stenographic recording of the hearing, in violation of state statutes. Normally, land use boards record public hearings so that a transcript can be provided in the event of a court action.