WESTFIELD, NJ — An extensive update to the town’s historic preservation law is headed back to the town council after gaining planning board approval on Monday.
The board decided by a unanimous vote that the proposed regulations are in keeping with the recently updated master plan, a guide for land use development within the municipality. The town council is expected to hold a public hearing on and adopt the revised regulations on Aug. 11.
At the virtual meeting Monday, members of the historic preservation commission presented their case for the revised regulations, a key provision of which would have an historic preservation officer review demolition permits for homes built prior to 1930 to determine if those residences have historical significance and should therefore be designated for the purpose of preservation.
“The demolitions have unfortunately been increasing significantly with 209 demolitions in the past four years,” said Robert Wendel, the town’s historian and a member of the Westfield Historic Preservation Commission.
Under the proposal, he told the board, if a home built prior to 1930 is slated for demolition, the commission would send its historic preservation officer to determine if there is an architectural or historical reason to designate the residence.
“Oftentimes, we don’t know that they’ve been destroyed until they’ve been destroyed,” Wendel said. “So we’re trying to put a process step in there prior to them being destroyed.”
The town council would ultimately decide on the designation of any home as historic, he said. If the home is designated as historic, Wendel said, that residence could not be demolished, and the homeowner would have to apply to the historic preservation commission for a “certificate of appropriateness” before making any modifications to the exterior of the home.
The criteria for determining if a home is historic, according to the ordinance, include the following
- Character, interest or value as part of the development, heritage or cultural characteristics of the town, state or nation
- Identification with a person or persons who significantly enriched the town, state or nation
- Site of a historic event which had significant effect on the development of the town, state or nation
- Embodiment of distinguishing characteristics of a type, period or method of construction, architecture or engineering
- Identification with the work of a builder, designer, artist, architect or landscape architect whose work has influenced the development of the town, state or nation
- Embodiment of elements of design, detail, materials or craftsmanship that render a site architecturally significant or structurally innovative
- Unique location of singular physical characteristics that make a district or site an established or familiar visual feature
- Likely to yield information important in prehistory or history
Just because a home was built before 1930 does not mean it would be designated as historic, Mayor Shelley Brindle said.
“I live in a 1906 house and it has no chance of being designated,” Brindle said. “I would be flattered if someone thought my house should be designated.”
Wendel said that under the proposed regulation, the HPC would not be able to decide paint color on the exterior of an historic home as is the case in the current regulation.
The new law, he said, also sets forth the requirements for residents to determine if a neighborhood can be designated as an historic district and lowers the number of people in a proposed district required to counter such a move by the neighborhood from 25% to 20%.
“In the event that they do file this petition of protest, it then forces a super majority vote of the town council to override that petition,” Wendel said.
Officials have said that the town is changing the historic preservation ordinance so that it can become eligible by virtue of a Certified Local Government status for grants that support historic preservation.
Maria Boyes, the historic preservation commission’s chairwoman, said that six out of 12 of the guiding principles in the town’s master plan reexamination report — a document that the town sought extensive public input for in 2019 — support the updates to the historic preservation ordinance.
“We will strive to preserve the attributes of our unique, hometown character and community identity, the beauty of our natural environment and the strengths of our neighborhoods, while lessening the adverse effects of growth,” says the report.
Evan Topilow, a builder and resident of Orenda Circle, asked if homeowners can determine the historic status of their residence before formally applying for a demolition permit — something that may be done after contractors have completed much work in preparation for a major home renovation or teardown.
“They go through the process of applying for demolition which includes cutting the street, removing the gas service and other utility services,” Topilow said. “This process takes months and takes thousands of dollars. … What happens if that home goes into review?”
Board President Robert Newell referred this, and a series of questions members of the public asked, to the town council. The chairman also recommended Topilow email email@example.com to obtain the answer.
“This forum is to express your feelings about its compatibly with master plan and only that component,” Newell said.
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