Have you wondered why Westfield has lost so many of our historic homes and landmarks over time? It’s primarily because we have had a weak Historic Preservation ordinance giving the Town limited authority to do anything about it.
Last Tuesday night the Town Council introduced an ordinance that revises our decades old Historic Preservation ordinance to ensure our iconic landmarks will be preserved for future generations before it’s too late. It will also finally make Westfield compliant with state Municipal Land Use Law as the current statute leaves us subject to legal challenge.
This ordinance is intended to preserve our historically significant homes and maintain the character of our neighborhoods while mitigating excessive tear downs. It will also ensure the preservation of many of our downtown landmarks in advance of potential redevelopment. Very importantly, it will allow the Historic Preservation Commission to achieve state certification status enabling access to grants and funding in order to preserve designated historic structures for future generations. Last year, certified municipalities received an average of $100k each in state historic preservation grants.
The ordinance also changes certain provisions in our existing law that run counter to our efforts to encourage historic designation, such as eliminating the application fee currently required when a historically designated home seeks a “certificate of appropriateness,” and no longer requiring Town approval when the owner of a historically designated home wants to change paint colors. There is also a provision that imposes fines on developers for neglecting a vacant property for so long that it falls into disrepair, thereby warranting the demolition.
Some have raised a concern that the ordinance would allow a home to potentially be designated without permission from the owner, which I agree would not be appropriate. However, State law already mandates that municipalities have that power – whether any particular town exercises that power is up to them. I, for one, don’t see any circumstance under which the Council would vote to use it, and there is no instance that I’m aware of where the 47 other state certified municipalities have done so. Those towns include Montclair, Millburn/Short Hills, and fellow Union County towns Fanwood and Plainfield.
The introduction of this ordinance follows through on the commitment I made to you when I was elected to reduce tear downs of historic homes. Residents have overwhelmingly voiced their concern about the loss of our historic buildings, and reinforced their enthusiastic support for proactive historic preservation efforts during the public input phase of the Master Plan process. 80% of respondents agreed that historic preservation was very important, and 49% agreed that residential teardowns is one of the major issues facing Westfield today. While I appreciate the value and benefits of new construction, I believe we have an obligation to current and future Westfield residents to stop the destruction of character-defining older homes and buildings.
For example, did you know the house at 261 Clark Street was the first clubhouse for the Westfield Tennis Club? Built in 1860, it is now scheduled for demolition in the next few days to make way for new townhomes. I recently received an inquiry asking who approved this demolition. The simple answer is that no approval is required based upon existing town ordinances. The new ordinance includes a review process for homes built before 1930 that are scheduled to be demolished. The vast majority of permits will be approved, but in some instances, the Historic Preservation Commission will be given the opportunity to save and potentially historically designate the property.
In the past 20 years, there have been 1000 homes demolished, of which 53 were within identified historic districts, equating to 2.6 destroyed historic properties a year. At this rate, other than those that are historically designated, there will be no remaining historic properties in Westfield for future generations.
Decades of inaction on historic preservation has resulted in the demolition of many iconic historic structures, including the American Red Cross building on Prospect Street and other homes from the 1800s and even 1700s. Prior administrations simply chose not to act to preserve these homes, nor even to designate historically important property owned by the Town. My administration historically designated the Reeve House and Triangle Park last year because we recognize that now is the time to act to ensure that no more of our iconic historic buildings and landmarks are lost. This ordinance is the next logical step to realize that vision.
Not all houses are worth saving. Many are not. But don’t we want to know the history behind our historic properties before they are torn down? Certainly a review by the Historic Preservation Commission is warranted in cases like the Clark Street home before a permit is issued.
I’m very proud of the months of work that have gone into this revised ordinance and would like to thank the members of the Historic Preservation Commission, Town Historian Robert Wendel, Code Review Committee Chairwoman Dawn Mackey, HPC Liaison Councilwoman Linda Habgood, Town Planner Don Sammet, and Town Attorney Tom Jardim for all of their efforts to bring this to fruition. I invite all residents to review the ordinance (westfieldnj.gov/historicpreservation) and provide their input when it is presented to the Planning Board for review on July 6, 2020. You can also submit any questions to HPC@westfieldnj.gov and they will be included in the FAQ that will be made publicly available on the Town website in advance of the July 6 meeting.
There’s a reason in planning and preservation circles that Westfield is known as the “town of teardowns.” I’m looking forward to passing this ordinance so we will be known as the town that values its proud architectural heritage and history. There is no better time to prioritize preserving our history as we commemorate Westfield’s 300th anniversary. Thank you for your support and desire to preserve the character and history of our town for future generations.
Mayor Shelley Brindle