WESTFIELD, NJ — A newly proposed historic preservation law is creating a stir. Proponents of the regulation argue that it could prevent the teardowns of historically significant homes, while objectors are lobbying for homeowners’ property rights.
Last week, the town council introduced an updated version of the Historic Preservation ordinance that, officials said, would require homes built prior to 1930 receive governmental approval prior to being torn down.
“The recently introduced Historic Preservation ordinance includes a review process for homes built before 1930 that are scheduled to be demolished,” said Mayor Shelley Brindle in a statement Thursday. “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.”
The council had introduced the 33-page ordinance by a vote of 8-1 on June 9. The measure heads to the planning board for review July 6. If approved by the planning board, it would require a public hearing before the town council prior to its final approval.
Andrew Stillufsen, who owns an historic home on Fourth Avenue, told the council that he would prefer the town get more input from residents whose homes would be impacted by the new regulation.
On Friday, he told TAPinto Westfield that he would like to see impacted homeowners specifically noticed of the changes that would impact their homes.
“The proposed ordinance is giving the town the power to designate homes without the consent of the homeowner,” he said, then added: “Maybe that’s appropriate in some circumstances, but if that’s going to be done, then the Historic Preservation Commission has to be reformed.”
Stillufsen said he wants the process of seeking the HPC’s approval for an historic home’s improvements to be more objective. “The standard of review needs to change,” he said.
Councilman Mark LoGrippo, who voted against the regulation’s introduction, noted that homeowners already have the ability to apply for an historic designation. Under the proposed ordinance, certain homeowners would not have a say in their homes’ designation, LoGrippo said.
“If you own a house built in 1925, the town’s going to say that’s an historic home based on the way the ordinance is written and decisions regarding historic homes are not going to be determined by elected officials; they’re going to be determined by the historic preservation commission,” LoGrippo said.
Maria Boyes, who chairs the historic preservation commission, said she supports the ordinance because it would allow the town to become a certified local government, a designation intended to help communities preserve places’ historic character.
“I wholeheartedly support this ordinance because it means the town will finally be in compliance with the state’s municipal land use law and be able to obtain a Certified Local Government status,” Boyes said. “With a CLG, the municipality would be able to apply for a number of preservation-related grants.”
Susan Massa, a town resident and real estate broker associate with Keller Williams, however, said she is concerned that placing more restrictions on what owners can do with their homes could lower property values.
“Can I paint my house purple? They may say ‘no,’” Massa said. “If I want to put in new windows they may say ‘no.’ If I want to put in a porch or a back addition or an attached garage they may say ‘no.’”
She said the town should not restrict potential sellers just because of fears that neighborhoods could change. “Why are you saddling the homeowners, who pay exorbitant taxes to the Town of Westfield,” Massa said.
Evan Topilow, a builder and local resident, said he more frequently sees customers who would like to purchase newer homes rather than invest in older properties, and is also concerned about how the proposed regulation would impact the market.
“The people who want to move to this town they are looking for either newer homes or completely renovated homes that have today’s finishes and today’s appliances,” Topilow said. “If this ordinance becomes more restrictive, there are going to be fewer homes for those people to buy, and I think they’ll eventually start looking in other towns.”
Tear downs of historic homes have long been a concern of residents in Westfield. During a workshop last year seeking input for an update to the town’s master plan, residents raised worries about historic homes being torn down and a general uptick in demolitions.
Brindle said that in the past 20 years, 1,000 homes in Westfield have been demolished, of which 53 were within identified historic districts, equating to 2.6 historic properties destroyed a year on average.
In February, the potential teardown of an historic home at 923 Central Avenue raised the ire of residents’ when they learned it was slated to come before the planning board and might be demolished. The town’s historian confirmed the home had been built in 1757 and had been the residence of Cornelius Ludlum, a member of the Revolutionary War Brigade the Jersey Blues.
Brindle said Friday that due to a technical change in the ordinance, the new regulation will again have to be reintroduced before the council. It will still go before the planning board on July 6, she said.
“There’s a reason in planning and preservation circles that Westfield is known as the ‘town of teardowns,’” Brindle said. “I’m looking forward to passing this ordinance, so we will be known as the town that values its proud architectural heritage and history.”
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