Councilman Weber Assists Mayor to Create Historical Preservation Commission; Historic District Designation Would Protect Antique Homes

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Hillsideave2.jpeg If there's one thing that Metuchen Borough Councilman Richard Weber hopes to accomplish before his present term is up, it would be to establish historic districts around the town and preserve some of the beautiful antique homes that exist throughout our many neighborhoods.

Weber proclaimed at a recent Council meeting that he had spent "a really interesting and fun morning" in the Library's Grimstead Room with the Mayor's newly-appointed Historical Ppreservation Commission, looking over old maps and other artifacts from the multitude that the society has been preserving for years. He sees the historical district idea as a way of "recognizing the value of [buildings like] the Old Franklin School, which is a beautiful building." Rahway and the Clara Barton area have saved historical building facades from being destroyed. Although there is no historical commission in town yet, Weber did cite that the Historical Society is doing a great service to the town's memory, saving its pictures and stories, using oral traditions. But "who's going to save these old homes?" he asks. The Mayor and Weber have an answer for that.

In January 2008, Mayor Vahalla asked Weber to head the committee that would create a seven-person commission (Nancy Zerbi is working on the Edison tower as a separate entity). The councilman wishes to create a "historical component" to the Metuchen Master Plan. He hopes to start with just one historical district with specific houses cited in it (such as the Ayers-Allen House). He will create the commission which will create the district which will be added to the Master Plan.

 

Through a grant from Middlesex County, in May 2009 the MEHS will present a Historical Day for Metuchen. It will feature an architectural historian who will talk about the preservation process. One of the homes Weber is interested in is for sale, 35 Hofer Court. He hopes that his efforts will help to raise awareness of the importance of preserving these old homes, particularly as they pass from owner to owner.

 

The process for establishing these areas and preserving these homes, on a one-by-one basis, is a long and complicated series of steps--but Weber, along with the members of the MEHS and many antique homeowners, believes it is an important and necessary part of saving the history of Metuchen in a vital and visible way.

 

How does a town go about creating historic districts and preserving old homes from the ravages of time, weather, a bad economy and new owners who may not understand the importance of the cherry moldings or the Victorian turrets from their home's original plans? Here's a quick summary of the actions involved:

 

A Historical Preservation Commission must be created. The commission's mission is to create and then identify local historic districts and ensure that growth takes place appropriately within them--laws will be passed to protect the specific historical details of each home in the area or each home on its own within the town limits. Members of the commission will be town residents, often appointed by the city council.

 

The commission prepares a report for local elected officials, detailing the home's or district's significance, the boundaries of said district or property and each property that exists within this newly-determined district. The commission holds public hearings for all property owners in the district. Local historic districts require tremendous community support, so the commission would examine the Master Plan of the town and be able to illustrate, with the help of artists and town planners and the like, what would be lost if these older homes and their intricate and antique detailings were left to the whims of popular design decade by decade. After taking all this public input into consideration, the commission will make a recommendation to the city council, who may adopt, alter or reject the historic designation.

 Local historic districts carry rules about how a property appears, and this is what largely differentiates national from local historic districts. Homeowners in a national historic district are not bound by any commitment as to how their property will look or by any rules that govern future home repair. However, local designations can be so specific about maintaining a property as is to show its historical detailing or accoutrements that things as simple as whether or not a sidewalk can be extended becomes a major topic of discussion. Sometimes local homeowners, although loving their old house and its interesting antique qualities, may find these requirements too stringent and may be scared off from buying or maintaining a property in this district. Councilman Weber said he believes his commission would be willing to work with the homeowners to make sure that they could have a comfortable life in their home without losing any of the historically important details of their home in the process.

The flip side of the argument holds that the homeowner benefits in significant ways from having a historically preserved home in an historical district. In 2005, researchers found that home values in historic districts in Memphis, Tennessee, rose 14 to 23 percent higher than homes in non-historic areas [source: Munoz]. An increased sense of neighborhood and community pride is also a great by-product of this designation, not to mention that historic districts might create greater tourism or general traffic to the area.

With the planned Renaissance development and other building plans in the works, Weber feels that it is imperative to hold onto the beautifully-designed homes of the past and protect their unique qualities against the persuasive influence of modern design.  The Ayers-Allen House on Durham Avenue was build in the 1740s, making this home a living piece of history that lives on into the future, a place that has housed family after family through generations of Metuchenites. There are Sears homes and Victorian homes and churches and school buildings here that aptly illustrate the through-line of the town's history, from the New World to the Civil War, from the Depression through to today.

Councilman Weber also clarifies, "some historical commissions can regulate things such as façade changes and paint colors . . . we DO NOT propose that for the future Metuchen Historical Commission.  We propose that the Commission's role will be purely advisory and will seek to provide information and alternatives to demolition or significant changes to older homes . . . and it will act as an advocate for the preservation of buildings within the historic district but it will have no control over what property owners can or cannot do with their property.  The Historical Commission will be a forum where the community will be reminded of the value and importance of preserving the historic nature of our town!  If anyone would like to assist in making the Commission a reality they should reach out to me at rwebermetuchen@yahoo.com."

Metuchen Matters  will follow Councilman Weber's journey from forming the historical commission to unveiling the process to the town and finding individual homes and neighborhoods that could benefit from historical status and the safety of preservation measures. A long and fascinating process, it will be a path that will define this town and its community for many years to come, locally, state-wide and perhaps even nationally.

Take a look at this information from the Metuchen-Edison Historical Society:

Places in Edison and Metuchen That Are On The New Jersey Register of Historic Places and/or The National Register of Historic Places

 

The National Register Criteria for Evaluation

The quality of significance in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture is present in districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects that possess integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association and:

  •  That are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or
  •  That are associated with the lives of persons significant in our past; or
  •  That embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components lack individual distinction; or
  •  That have yielded, or may be likely to yield information important in prehistory, or history.

The listings itemize the buildings, structures, sites, objects, and districts listed on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places (SR) and the National Register of Historic Places (NR)

Private Residences:

  1. Edison: Benjamin Shotwell House. Runyons Lane. Built c. 1775. Placed on the State Register 4/28/1987. National Register 6/4/1987.
  2. Edison: Laing House & Barn. 1707 Woodland Ave. "Laing House of Plainfield Plantation". Placed on the State Register 3/23/1988. National Register 10/27/1988.
  3. Metuchen: Ayers-Allen House. 16 Durham Ave. Built 1740. During the Revolutionary War it was a tavern. Placed on the State Register 7/10/1985. National Register 9/5/1985.

Public Buildings:

  1. Edison: Homestead Farm at Oak Ridge. Featherbed Lane (Oak Ridge Golf Course). Placed on the State Register 9/8/1995. National Register 10/1995.
  2. Edison: Edison Memorial Tower. Christie St. Built in 1937. Placed on the State Register 10/9/1979. National Register 11/30/1979.
  3. Metuchen: Borough Hall. Main St. & Middlesex Ave. Built in 1924. Placed on the National Register 6/2001. Demolished by the Borough in April 2002.
  4. Edison: Roosevelt Care Center. (Roosevelt Hospital) Parsonage Rd. Built in the 1930's. Place on the State Register 1/9/2002. National Register 3/5/2002.
  5. Metuchen: Post Office. Main St. & Woodbridge Ave. Built in the 1930's. Placed on the State Register 6/25/2007

Eligible Sites

This also includes resources that have received Certifications of Eligibility (COE), opinions of eligibility from the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO Opinion), or Determinations of Eligibility (DOE) from the Keeper of the National Register.

Edison:

  • Battle of Short Hills/Oak Tree Engagement (SHPO Opinion 3/23/2001)
  • Camp Kilmer Military Reservation Historic District (SHPO Opinion 9/22/1988)
  • Edison Facility (Raritan Arsenal) (SHPO Opinion 7/15/1992)
  • Inch Lines Linear Multi-state Historic District (SHPO Opinion 8/31/1993)
  • Lehigh Valley Railroad Historic District (SHPO Opinion 3/15/2002)
  • Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home (SHPO Opinion 7/20/1994) Demolished.
  • Port Reading Railroad Historic District (SHPO Opinion 3/15/2002)
  • St. James Episcopal Church (COE 1/17/1990)

Metuchen:

  • Old Franklin School House (COE 12/12/1990)
  • Metuchen Railroad Station (DOE 8/26/1977)
  • NJ Rt. 27 Bridge over Reading RR (SHPO Opinion 11/19/1999)

19 Comments

The property tax issue is not limited to Metuchen, every town is like that.

Not sure where the logic is but the system is supposed to be based on market value. So if the renovated or new smaller home would sell for the same amount as the unrenovated older larger home, then they should pay the same in taxes.

I agree with the poster who talks about offering a tax abatement for home improvements. I am not improving my home because I fear the massive increase in taxes. It is a disincentive. The tax system in this town is ridiculous. You have huge old houses paying half the tax of smaller newer homes. You have people in renovated or expanded capes paying more than people who live in large victorians on over half an acre of land. Where is the logic in that?

One of the things that makes Metuchen special is the variety of homes, especially the more architecturally interesting older homes. The downtown is another thing that differentiates us. We need to support the businesses downtown and gently encourage them to make their buildings more visually appealing.

And we need to make it harder for builders to knock down existing houses to put up boring brick boxes.

"We have done a decent job of it." You have got to be kidding. Almost nothing has been done to limit the footprints, "permitted projections" are exploited to the max, and variances are handed out like candy. There is much more that could be done using the currently available "zoning toolbox," without waiting for help from Trenton.

I do agree that there should be more enforcement of property maintenance in the commercial district. But I've heard that as soon as the zoning official tries to do that, people run whining to town hall, and she is told to back off.

I don't recall death threats, but folks were passionate and upset about the manner in which the last proposed Historic Commission selected homes. (A consultant was hired to drive around Metuchen and made recommendations based on this and tax records alone). At the time it was done without public input until the results were in. The closed door behind the scenes decision making is what set folks off.

While a house is aged, it does not mean it is historically significant. While I agree in principle that we should preserve historic properties, we should be ever mindful that we do not own the properties outright thus a commission or government controlling a property owners rights oversteps bounds. The right way to limit the destruction should be through tougher zoning regulations. Subdivisions should not be approved if variances are required.

The builders will continue to tear down and provide infill housing unless we limit the footprints. While we have done a decent job of it, we should be looking for more ways to accomplish this rather than attach a label on a property and limit the homeowner through a historic commission. We need more support from the state level as builders have the support of Trenton. We should be asking our senators to develop the legislation to further enhance what towns can legislate in terms of footprint size, setbacks and required open space. Builders have too much flexibility to work around present restrictions and ordinances as our town is not built on a grid, but evolved over the past 150 years, thus the disparity between lot sizes in neighborhoods.

While the sentiment is good, change is necessary for towns to thrive. While we may not like every result, attempting to insist that old homes be preserved could in fact hurt individual homeowners and developments if they are not properly maintained.

Maintenace in our town has been and continues to be a major issue. We do not have a strong enforcement policy surrounding home maintenance, as well as, our commerical districts. We should be starting here. These are easy fixes. Main Street continues to deterioriate, while Walmart has just opened, and the Hartz Mountain project on the old Ford site has recently received approvals from Edision. These are real threats to our Main Street. Without a viable Main Street we are,simply put, another anytown New Jersey.

I just hope this is not being done for selfish reasons. I hope that the people who will be making recomendations to homeowners are qualified or hire someone qualified to make these decisions.
Creating a govt. body to make recomendations is one step having a govt. body mandating changes.

Government already has a lot of control over what you can do with your property.

Take a look at Councilman Weber's statement at the end of the article for clarification on your comment.

I like the idea of preserving history, but we should stay away from anything that doesn't have the property owners buy-in.

Govt. and others do not have the right to say what can or can't be done unless the property owners have agreed to the groundrules. If you buy a property that is protected, fine, you knew that going in.

Thank you, Tyreen. You are a great boon to our historical society in this town!!

Many states, but unfortunately not NJ, provide tax incentives for restoration work on historic homes. Barbara Buono has been an advocate of NJ adopting such a plan.

Richard Weber's time and work towards a commission will raise an awareness of this proposed bill, and hopefully add some needed heft behind it. So, the time spent is worthwhile not only to those who want to preserve their historic homes because they treasure them, but also for those who want some financial relief as well.

Instead of a rebate, you can give people a tax abatement if they make improvements to their home.

Our whole system for taxing real property needs to be revised. The current system creates a disincentive for people to improve their homes.

Why should a big house with one resident pay more in taxes than a small house with six residents? Who is using more municipal services?

50 years from now split level homes with asbestos siding will be historical. should we be tearing them down now to put up fake victorians.

Do you really think everybody that would get a 20% tax break would put that money right back into the house? It would be nice if we didn't, but you do need something like this so that people don't destroy the past. Old homes and mature trees are two things we should be very careful with before we alter them or take them down, because once you do there's no going back. I honestly don't care what changes people make to the inside, but the exterior should be kept to character of the neighborhood.

HOW ABOUT INSTEAD OF SPENDING TIME FORMING COMMISSIONS TELLING PEOPLE WHAT TO DO WITH THIER HOUSES, WHY NOT FIGURE OUT HOW TO REDUCE THEIR TAXES SO THAT THEY CAN STILL LIVE IN THEIR HISTORIC HOUSES. How about a 20% tax reduction, for people who live in historical districts, so that they can maintain these antiques, instead of taxing them up the wazoo every time they make improvements. Some of the people in these historic houses are seniors with fixed incomes. Let’s make their houses worth more so when you drive them out because of taxes we won't feel as bad, great idea.

Let's hope that those who issued the death threats have moved out.

It was a shame that Fox & Foxx demolished the stagecoach house. The neighbors tried to buy it from them, but they were determined to knock it down.

They continue to knock down houses and build huge McMansions that fill the building envelope and will keep doing it until the town council changes the zoning. Obviously there are people who want those big new houses. Soon they won't seem out of character for their neighborhood because all the affordable older houses will be gone.

After all the talk about the stagecoach house being "structurally unsound" it took two cranes to demolish it because the house was too strong for the first one. The old beams were enormous. Heard Mr. Jessen bought them - wonder what he did with them.

Luckily times do change, and hopefully those who may have issued "death threats" in the past will have matured enough to use reason to at least look into what we are hoping to propose - which is far more advisory than regulatory.

Awareness of the value of preservation is the goal - the more people know, the more we hope that they will value what this town has, and what makes it a special place. Often people living in the midst of such a wonderful town don't realize what they have, and how fragile it can be. Not only that, but preservation and restoration of older structures (despite some contractors' claims to the contrary) can often be the most economical choice, and is always the "greenest" one.

In addition, many people naively believe that the "most historic" (i.e. 18th century) buildings in Metuchen are somehow protected. This is simply not true, as evidenced by the demolition of the Stagecoach House a couple of years ago. That house was arguably the most important early building in town, significant in several aspects of our local history. Even though my own home is listed on the NJ and National Registers, it has no protection from a similar fate (except that we would never, ever do such a thing).

I am thrilled to have Richard Weber at the helm of this effort, and I encourage anyone with concerns to discuss them with him & the committee working on forming the commission. It is a very positive development for Metuchen!

Good luck. The last group that tried to establish historic districts in town got death threats. Many people do not like the idea of giving up control over what they can do with their home to a commission.

Our competition for "brainy boro," Glen Ridge, has a historic preservation commission. Here's an excerpt from their web site:

The Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), established by municipal ordinance in 1987, is charged with conserving, protecting, enhancing and perpetuating the landmarks, properties and improvements within the Glen Ridge Historic District. This District, comprising over 80 percent of Glen Ridge, runs roughly from Dodd Street in the north to Carteret Street in the South.

By ordinance, all exterior changes which can be seen from any street (regardless of existing or future trees, shrubs, or other landscaping) to the houses and properties in the Historic District are subject to review by the HPC before a Building Permit for such changes is issued. The Commission strives to assist owners in planning renovations or remodeling to meet the historic preservation criteria and standards. HPC meetings are held monthly in the Council Chambers at Borough Hall, and, by law, are open to the public.

An applicant for a Building Permit for any work fitting the above criteria (also, see "EXCEPTIONS" below) will be required first to file an application for the HPC, and to appear personally before the Commission with the builder, contractor or architect before the HPC at their monthly meeting (usually the first Wednesday of each month). Applications must be accompanied by photographs of the property as it exists, sketches to scale, working drawings, or architectural elevations of the proposed work, and samples of materials, where appropriate. In reviewing applications, the Commission considers the visual compatibility of the proposed alteration with the structure, its history, and its surroundings.

The following are some of the actions which require the approval of the Historic Preservation Commission before a Building Permit can be issued:

Application of new roofing or siding if using a material other than that presently on a structure

Alteration of structures such as the house or garage, or of some portion of a structure, e.g., porches, decks, or new additions

Moving, adding or removing windows or doors

Changing or covering any portion of the exterior, e.g., with vinyl or aluminum

Demolition or removal of any exterior structure

Building any new structure

The Commission does not oppose changes, but seeks to ensure that any changes do not detract from the historic character of the Historic District.

EXCEPTIONS: The HPC does not review paint or roof color, or roof materials if they are the same as the existing materials. Window and door replacement, if there is no alteration of the original opening or material, do not require HPC approval, although the Commission welcomes applicants wishing to consult them.

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Recent Comments

  • Anonymous: The property tax issue is not limited to Metuchen, every read more
  • Anonymous: Not sure where the logic is but the system is read more
  • Anonymous: I agree with the poster who talks about offering a read more
  • Anonymous: One of the things that makes Metuchen special is the read more
  • Anonymous: "We have done a decent job of it." You have read more
  • Anonymous: I don't recall death threats, but folks were passionate and read more
  • Anonymous: I just hope this is not being done for selfish read more
  • Anonymous: Government already has a lot of control over what you read more
  • Anonymous: Take a look at Councilman Weber's statement at the end read more
  • Anonymous: I like the idea of preserving history, but we should read more

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