Jim Kenyon: Razed right in Norwich

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

By JIM KENYON

Valley News Columnist

Published: 11-05-2023 2:56 AM

In a town with as much wealth as Norwich, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that a $700,000 house built in the early 1990s is considered tear-down material.

Still, when a caller told me Andy and Peggy Sigler’s former house on Beaver Meadow Road had been reduced to rubble, I had a hard time believing it. But the caller was right on.

Poof.

Where once stood a contemporary three-bedroom house with a brick fireplace, hardwood floors and central air-conditioning there’s now a vacant lot.

The property’s new owners, a Massachusetts couple, took a wrecking ball to the house, which was hardly an eyesore. (It was assessed by the town for $705,200 for property tax purposes).

The house sat on an 88-acre parcel that Karen and Robert Sommers, of Southborough, Mass., purchased for $2.25 million two years ago, property records show.

Andy Sigler, a former Dartmouth College trustee, and his wife built the house a few years before they moved to Norwich in 1996. Sigler was a longtime CEO of Champion International when it was the largest forest products company in the U.S.

Sigler died in July 2021 at age 89. The last I heard Peggy Sigler had left Vermont to be closer to the couple’s children.

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The Sommers are now building a four-bedroom house — presumably with a better view — farther up the property’s grassy hillside. The estimated cost is $2 million, according to a town zoning permit filed by their contractor, Riverlight Builders, of Norwich. They’ve already put in an outdoor pickleball and basketball court that cost a little under $45,000, another zoning permit shows.

The Sommers own a commercial property management company called City Wide Facility Solutions Boston, which has more than 600 clients, according to the company’s website.

Like many parts of the country, tear-downs are nothing new in the Upper Valley. Until recently it’s been mostly older, smaller houses getting demolished to make way for McMansions.

Nationally, some communities are tightening building regulations to thwart the bigger-is-better trend. In Norwich, however, the moneyed class tends to enjoy carte blanche. Meanwhile any effort to build affordable workforce housing in the last 25 years has met insurmountable resistance from the town’s NIMBY crowd.

Norwich does limit the height of buildings in its rural residential district, which includes Beaver Meadow Road, to 35 feet. Originally, the Sommers’ house was designed to reach 36 feet at its peak. After the town pointed out the rule infraction, their architect reduced the height to meet zoning regulations.

Ah, the sacrifices that wealthy people must make.

Plenty of people will argue that if the Sommers or anyone else wants to pour a couple of million bucks into a second home, so be it. After all, it’s their money.

Cam Brown, the managing broker at Lang McLaughry Commercial Real Estate and a longtime Norwich resident, said he doesn’t expect the tear-down craze (my word, not his) to end any time soon.

Dartmouth College and Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center are “attracting a lot of outside money,” Brown said.

While he’s “not a big fan of McMansions,” Brown sees an economic benefit. The construction of large new homes provides decent-paying jobs for skilled carpenters and other tradespeople. “Overall, it’s a good thing,” he said. “It translates into more growth.”

But any tear-down project deserves scrutiny, if for no reason other than its environmental impact. In the case of the Siglers’ house, there was a concrete foundation, gable roof and everything in between.

I hoped it didn’t go to waste.

I called Kevin O’Hara, a building contractor in the Upper Valley for 35 years, to get his take. He’s seen his share of tear-downs, but wasn’t familiar with this one. O’Hara encourages clients who want to raze a house or parts of it to donate used building materials.

He serves on the board of COVER, a nonprofit that has been repairing and weatherizing homes of older and low-income residents for 25 years.

COVER’s store in downtown White River Juniction resells donated doors, windows, cabinets and other building materials.

Starting with the environmental benefit, it’s a “win, win, win,” O’Hara said. “Re-purposing usable building materials keeps it out of the landfill.”

COVER then uses the money the store brings in to support its home repairs and weatherization efforts for people in need. And homeowners can “benefit from a tax write off for their donations,” O’Hara said. “It’s a nice tidy circle of people helping out.”

With that in mind, I gave the Sommers a call. Their family, which includes three adult children, has known from the moment the tear-down began that the “optics aren’t great,” Bob Sommers said.

Demolishing the house wasn’t their “original plan,” he said. “After spending some time in the house, we could see it was in complete disrepair.”

“Renovations weren’t going to be possible,” he added, mentioning window damage and water leaks.

But there was a lot that could be saved, including appliances, and I was glad to hear the Sommers say they had found COVER. They also brought in Vermont Salvage, a White River Junction business that works with Upper Valley Valley Habitat for Humanity.

The company is giving a hefty chunk of the proceeds from the sale of materials in the tear-down project to the nonprofit that uses volunteers to build affordable housing, Bob Sommers said.

The Sommers have opened mountain biking trails on their property to the public. In a post on the Norwich Listserv this fall, they invited people to pick apples in their orchard so the fruit wouldn’t go to waste.

“We’re trying to immerse ourselves into the community,” Karen Sommers said.

Other wealthy newcomers to the Upper Valley might take note. It’s an approach worth salvaging.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.