WESTFIELD, NJ — Residents supporting an extensive update to the town’s historic preservation law said Tuesday night that it could prevent the unwanted teardowns of potentially historic homes while homeowners opposed to the update characterized the regulations as government overreach.
The town council re-introduced the updated historic preservation ordinance after learning that the initial version of the local law introduced earlier in the month misstated the threshold year for determining if a home would require governmental approvals before to being torn down. The intended year is 1930, while the initial ordinance stated that year as 1924, Mayor Shelley Brindle said.
“Residents have repeatedly asked us to take steps to preserve the historical character of our neighborhoods, as all of us benefit from the value they bring to Westfield,” Brindle said in her prepared remarks. “I am supportive of measured and appropriate new construction and recognize the importance of new homes to attract buyers who are looking for modern amenities and floor plans. But … we would be remiss to not review homes with historical significance before they are demolished.”
About a dozen members of the public voiced varying views on the proposal with approximately half speaking in support of it. Council members approved the measure’s reintroduction 8-1. Councilman Mark LoGrippo casting the dissenting vote.
LoGrippo previously noted that homeowners have the option to apply for voluntary historic designation and has objected to the possibility that property owners could have their homes designated as historic against their wishes.
Bruce Henderson, a resident of Boulevard, said that his home was built in 1870 and that he believes there is a “very good chance” his residence could be deemed historic.
“What makes you think you have the right to tell me what changes I can and cannot make to my home?” Henderson asked.
Margeret Roeck, a resident of East Broad Street, however, said she supports the measure as a means to control the development of housing in town.
“It’s a wonderful first step in addressing the overdevelopment in Westfield,” Roeck said. “Due to the pandemic, density has become something of a cause célèbre.”
Town Historian Robert Wendel, who helped in crafting the measure, said main purpose of the update is to bring the local regulation into compliance with state law, so the municipality can apply for grants in support of historic preservation.
“This has unfortunately been politicized,” Wendel told the council. “And I think that needs to stop, and people need to start focusing on what we’re seeking to accomplish, which is working cooperatively to stop the destruction of historic homes in this town.”
Grove Street resident Robert Pinheiro asked about the appeals process for a homeowner objecting to their home’s designation. Pinheiro also asked if a homeowner could get the town to determine a residence’s historic status prior to the initiating the formal historic designation process.
“My house was built before 1930, and suppose I wanted to sell it to someone. It would seem that the potential buyer may want to know ahead of time whether it is historic or not,” Pinheiro said.
He was among several residents to also ask if the town could provide financial incentives toward historic designation.
While officials did not discuss specific financial incentives for historic preservation they did describe the process for designation.
Under the proposed law an “historic preservation officer” would review demolition permits and determine if those homes have a potentially historic status, Town Planner Donald Sammet said.
It would then be up to the Historic Preservation Commission recommend to the town council that a home be designated as historic and as a result subject to the regulations for historic homes, he said. The town council then would decide on the designation, officials said.
Jacqueline E. Brevard, a member of the town’s historic preservation commission, said she is in conversations with residents of her block of Dudley Avenue to designate the area as historic.
“If you do not want to live in an historic home, please do not buy one in Westfield and tear it down,” Brevard said. “What’s the point?”
Kimball Avenue resident Debby Burslem, who lives in the town’s only historic district, recommended the municipality seek input from residents on her street.
“It would have been good prior to writing an ordinance to come to the residents on Kimball,” Burslem said. “I’ve only lived this for 23 years, but there are a lot of people who have lived it a lot longer.”
Former Councilman James Foerst, a resident of Scotch Plains Avenue, argued against the designation of 1930 as the threshold year — something officials attributed to a change in architectural styles before World War II. He doesn't want the metric to be a year.
“The intention is true and good, but it shouldn’t be about age,” Foerst said. “It should be about architecture. It should be about the look and feel of a neighborhood.”
The local law heads to the Planning Board for review on July 6. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. It would then require a formal public hearing before being approved by the town council.
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