There are local ordinances that are cause for legitimate concern. There are others for which misinformation feeds unwarranted fear. As a former Westfield Town Councilman, I have had experience with both. The recently proposed amendment to the Westfield Historic Preservation ordinance is of the latter kind.
The New Jersey State Municipal Land Use Law does not permit the owner of a property that has been designated an historic site to consent to, or to veto, such a designation. Critics of the proposed amendment to the Westfield ordinance complain that it will eliminate the consent of an affected homeowner before designating a property as “historic.” In fact, controlling New Jersey state law already prohibits such consent. The amendment will simply conform our ordinance with that law.
It has been suggested that the Brindle Administration seeks to empower an unelected body to tell residents whether their homes are historic landmarks. In fact, the Historic Preservation Commission has always been comprised of unelected members, as required by the controlling state MLUL.
Neither Mayor Brindle nor any future Mayor may designate a home or a district for historic preservation. Instead, the town’s Master Plan is the document from which designation nominations are presented to the Planning Board and the Town Council for approval. Moreover, the amendment permits 20% of the residents of any district to object to a change that would designate it as “historic.” Overriding such an objection would require a supermajority vote of the Town Council.
Both the current and amended ordinance provide that, in establishing a survey of historic landmarks, the Commission “shall be guided by the National Register of Historic Places Criteria Eligibility.” The “Criteria for Designation” in the local ordinance faithfully tracks that federal regulation.
The amended ordinance will be perfectly constitutional. It will also slow the rate at which we currently lose our historic landmarks. Since the year 2000, between 900 and 1,000 homes have been razed and replaced with new construction. This includes 53 homes that were identified as potential historic properties or were located within potential historic districts.
Studies have consistently shown that historic homes, and homes within historic districts, maintain their values better than those without such designations and, in fact, increase in value at a greater rate. Yet, this is not the main reason why we should scrupulously fulfill our collective responsibility as stewards of Westfield’s heritage. There are homes and structures in Westfield that date to the 1740s.
There is a farmhouse on Central Avenue that was built when George Washington was 25 years old. There are sites where significant events in our colonial history occurred. We owe it to our children and to posterity to preserve landmarks that are associated with significant contributions to our history, that are linked to the lives of important historical figures, or that help us to understand our history. The proposed amendment to the Historic Preservation ordinance will accomplish these worthy goals in ways that the current version of the Code has often failed us.
Carl A. Salisbury