Thank you to everyone who has reached out with questions about the proposed revisions to the Historic Preservation Ordinance. I would like to take this opportunity to address the disinformation that continues to circulate, and provide you with an update.
We have had an Historic Preservation Ordinance since 1984. It was revised in 2008, but much of what is currently being debated (i.e. role and authority of the Historic Preservation Commission) has been on our books long before I was your mayor. The proposed update will not impact the vast majority of homeowners who may continue to sell, remodel and restore their properties as they wish. The only trigger for potential historic designation review for pre-1930 homes is if a homeowner files for a demolition permit.
Much of the disinformation has been distributed by those who have a personal agenda and a vested interest in the status quo. The reality is that owners of older homes, and particularly seniors, are frequently encouraged to sell their greatest asset for below market value for demolition, resulting in a clear financial benefit to third parties working together to profit from new construction. This approach sends a message that is abundantly clear and reflected in the 1,000 teardowns that have happened over the past 20 years — the financial gain of a handful of developers and realtors has taken priority, time and again, over protecting the character of our community.
This ordinance will finally establish a check against this practice.
I am grateful for the thoughtful engagement we’ve seen by residents through emails, calls, social media, press coverage, public meetings and community forums. Based upon this extensive feedback, we will be making several amendments to the ordinance at the Aug. 11 Town Council meeting in anticipation of adoption at the Sept. 8 meeting — which is exactly how the municipal public input process is supposed to work.
Additionally, as a benefit to those who have or are considering historically designating their homes, we will be introducing a plan, subject to Council approval, to permit five-year tax abatements on improvements to historically designated homes and districts, similar to the program that was recently approved for (and overwhelmingly supported by) downtown property owners.
The proposed ordinance revision will put us in compliance with state Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL) and enable eligibility for state, federal and NGO grant monies that could support town-wide and resident preservation efforts, which the current ordinance does not allow. MLUL compliance requires that the municipalities retain the right to designate properties as historic without consent. Our research has found that municipalities have rarely if ever used this power, and we don’t intend to either.
It’s worth underscoring that old and historic are not the same. In fact, there is a very high legal threshold to historically designate a home, and most homes will not meet the criteria. In 2002, the then-Town Council adopted a Master Plan that identified approximately 120 properties that could potentially qualify for designation. This was done solely for planning purposes, not as a proposed hit list. Even these homes — at least those still standing — will not be “targeted” for designation but instead, their homeowners will be asked to consider voluntary designation in collaboration with the HPC, which continues to be the primary goal.
It is clear that the debate around this ordinance is not fundamentally about historic preservation, but about the role of government in our lives. As an avowed and proud capitalist, I appreciate the concern, but also recognize the need for balance or “guardrails” in situations like this one to preserve and protect the long-term value of Westfield for current and future property owners.
Westfield residents overwhelmingly agree that we’re sick of losing our historic landmarks and being known as the “town of teardowns,” yet some believe this ordinance overreaches. In anticipation of that reaction, we have spent the better part of a year and a half looking at a wide variety of ways to slow or otherwise regulate teardowns of character-defining Westfield homes, including soliciting input from a variety of experts and reviewing best practices from municipalities across the state.
The (bipartisan) members of the Town Council’s Code Review and Property Committee have also been involved in the many details of this ordinance throughout this process, and have had every opportunity to incorporate their input prior to its introduction, just as they will be able to weigh in on the upcoming amendments.
I did not run for mayor to maintain the status quo, but rather to enact a new forward-looking vision for our town and address long-standing resident concerns that had been ignored for too long. This proposed ordinance reflects that approach, and is also consistent with the commitment I made to you to make historic preservation a priority.
This healthy debate on historic preservation will not be the first nor last disagreement on policy. As we embark on the possibilities of potential redevelopment, I anticipate and hope for significant discussion about our town’s future, and this debate is critical to achieving the best outcome.
And it is because of our talented and engaged citizens that I remain fearlessly optimistic about our collective future. My only ask is that you proactively stay informed, and take it upon yourself to read beyond the headlines and often misleading or just plain factually-incorrect social media posts.
We will be sharing the proposed amendments to the historic preservation ordinance once they’ve been vetted by the Council’s Code Review Committee in advance of the Aug. 11 Council meeting. In the meantime, I encourage you to read HPC Chairwoman Maria Boyes’ recent letter which dispels many of the current misrepresentations, as well our updated FAQs.
I recognize this ordinance revision may not be politically popular, but I am not guided by politics. I am doing what is right and necessary to ensure the preservation of our Town’s architecture and history for future generations. Thank you, once again, for your passionate engagement on the issues that matter most to all of us. #thisplacematters #westfield300