On Clover Lane and Deer Path "Historic" is a Mixed Blessing

Matthew Hersh

For some residents in a 51-year-old, relatively unassuming development in the Littlebrook section of Princeton Township, say the word "historic" and you'll discover what that designation means to those concerned about building limitations on their properties.

For more than two years, the Princeton Township Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) has been considering a 34-home development on Clover Lane and Deer Path for historic designation. And for much of that time, a majority of residents were on board with the idea.

After all, historic designation would preserve the neighborhood character, potentially preclude the building of so-called McMansions, and, most important, might help preserve the aesthetic character of a neighborhood that can only be described as "lived in."

The mid-century modernist vision of noted architect David Savage is what is at stake here, and while (most) residents seem to enjoy the style, there are those who have reservations, as was seen last Monday when HPC resumed its deliberations on the area. What worries some residents is the fundamental role of government, and how it could impact their ability to build.

"It's truly a unique gathering of mid-century homes," said HPC Vice Chair Julie Capozzoli. "The homes are interesting and merit the attention they are getting."

Fair enough, some say, but residents like Jim Hirsch are objecting to the potential historic designation because of the perceived red tape that might need to be cut through before changes could be made to a home in a historic district. Mr. Hirsch also worried about the long-term impact on property values.

Mr. Hirsch is not alone. Twelve homeowners have signed a petition opposing historic designation, as opposed to a petition from 16 residents favoring the label and subsequent mandates.

While HPC Commissioners maintain that the impetus for exploring the historic designation stemmed from a survey of architectural neighborhoods conducted years ago, the accompanying McMansion issue of larger structures being put up near smaller-scale homes has given an immediacy to any actions planned by the municipality.

Commissioner Robert von Zumbusch argued that issues related to McMansions and preservation are concurrent. "You can't talk about one without the other. But in this particular case, there is a possibility that historic preservation can play a role — that's not true with every neighborhood.

"I think it can play a very good role," he added.

But Marion Sherry of Deer Path disagreed, saying that the entire process, which has largely focused on the benefits of preservation, has "really upset" her. "I've had a deep sense of violation and it offends me that in my own home, I'm a supplicant and I have to get everyone to agree with me."

Both she and Mr. Hirsch indicated that there were "unanswered" questions about the economics of such designation and fees related to making changes on homes in areas considered historic.

Salah El-Shakhs of Deer Path, an architect, said most residents in the neighborhood appreciate the architecture and that there is a desire to preserve that character, but that architectural changes should not be out of the question. "We want to preserve that character, we want to prevent McMansions from happening, but we're also opposed to strict rules that would prevent people from making additions to their house."

A home in a historic district is not required to undergo a review for ordinary maintenance, but changes such as installing a different sized window that would be visible from the street would subject the property owner to a $50 administrative review. On a site walk around the Deer Path/Clover Lane neighborhood three weeks ago, most Commissioners agreed that existing changes that have been made to homes would be cleared by the HPC. There are some add-ons, like a two-story Michael Graves rear addition at the home of Raphael Sharon, which would not be approved. Mr. Sharon, a proponent of historic designation, has acknowledged that additions like his would not be acceptable.

HPC will continue its discussion of the Deer Path/Clover Lane neighborhood before holding a public hearing on the potential of historic designation. If HPC recommends such designation, it will ultimately go before the Planning Board and Township Committee for final approval.

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