December 19, 2012

No Vote Yet on Historic District Proposal After Injunction Is Filed by Its Opponents

The continuing saga of whether to establish a historic district in Princeton’s Morven neighborhood got no closer to a decision last week at a meeting of Borough Council. At the outset, Mayor Yina Moore said that, on the advice of the Borough’s legal counsel, no action would be taken. The matter will be taken up by the newly consolidated Council next year.

Previous to the December 11 meeting, neighborhood residents opposed to designating 51 properties bordered by Library Place, Hodge Road, and Bayard Lane as historic filed an injunction, which stopped the Council from voting on the matter. According to John Heilner, a resident in favor of the designation, the injunction was filed without informing proponents of the district or their attorney.

“The only people present at the injunction hearing were opponents’ attorney and the assistant Borough Attorney,” he wrote in an email following the meeting. “Proponents of the District were not informed when it was to be held, nor was our attorney invited to participate.”

Despite the lack of a vote, Mayor Moore invited the attorneys for both sides, as well as residents who live outside the perimeter of the proposed district, to offer comment. Lawyer Mark Solomon, representing the opponents, said that the proposed ordinance was defective because under National Register of Historic Places guidelines, a historic district designation should not proceed over the objection of a majority of the property owners within the district. But Frederick Raffeto, the attorney for the residents in favor of the designation, countered that National and State criteria are not relevant at the local level.

“National and State regulations are not the same as at the local level, so they don’t apply here,” he said. “The Federal and State register process is not part of the MLUL [Municipal Land Use Law].”

The battle over whether to designate the architecturally diverse neighborhood of grand homes in Princeton’s western section has been ongoing for more than six years. Those in favor say designation would protect the neighborhood’s architectural heritage and prevent existing houses from being torn down and replaced by those that do not blend into the existing fabric. Those opposed fear that designation would impose restrictions on making changes to the exteriors of their homes. Princeton currently has four historic districts.

Mr. Solomon called the situation “a wound in this neighborhood for six years” and “a sad story of missteps.” He also said that the move is opposed “by a strong majority of the residents.” Those in favor of the designation have argued that the number is actually evenly split among those for the designation and those against it.

Among the residents from outside the district who spoke at the meeting, most were in favor of the proposal. “Historic designation provides protection from the indiscriminate destruction of existing homes,” said Alexi Assmus. “This isn’t about politics,” said Claire Jacobus. “We are talking about the history of the community. We need stewardship, not ownership.”

Scott Sipprelle, who lives just outside the proposed district in the house once owned by Grover Cleveland, spoke against the designation. “Laws don’t make and preserve history. Laws don’t make and preserve homes,” he said. “People do. There is no debate that we want preservation. It’s a question of what is the best mechanism.”