Princeton Borough Council’s unanimous vote October 2 to introduce an ordinance creating the Morven tract historic district comes after more than six years of efforts in support by one segment of the neighborhood, and vociferous objections by another. The latter was represented in force at the meeting last Tuesday, at which Mayor Yina Moore had to bang her gavel more than once to restore order.
The vote, which elicited boos and hisses, sends the ordinance off to the Regional Planning Board. After review, the measure will return to Borough Council for a final public hearing and vote. The proposed district is in the town’s architecturally distinctive western section and spans portions of Hodge Road, Library Place, Boudinot Street, Morven Place, and Bayard Lane.
It was last month that the Borough’s Historic Preservation Review Committee (HPRC) recommended that the designation be pursued, but also advised that Borough Council postpone acting on the recommendation until after consolidation goes into effect in January 2013. The Borough and Township have different ordinances, and the newly merged commission is expected to reflect elements of the existing two when it is formed.
Borough Council’s decision to take the first steps in considering the ordinance last week caused consternation among those opposed to the designation. Chief among other concerns voiced by residents of the district and some who live outside its boundaries were restrictions that would require them to go through a review process before making changes to the exteriors of their homes.
But Nora Kerr, chairperson of the HPRC, said this week that some of those concerns are unfounded. “The present Borough ordinance says that if any surface has been refinished in the past, you can paint it any color you want,” she said in response to statements during the meeting about paint color restrictions. Changes that require review in historic districts include construction of fences, adding light fixtures, changing or adding awnings, replacing windows, building additions, new construction, demolition, and changes in roof materials. Should a homeowner need to replace a slate roof with materials less expensive, “We try to be reasonable,” Ms. Kerr said. “For a roof, they’d have to come in for a review. But that happens very rarely.”
The restrictions apply only to exterior portions of a property that are visible from the public right-of-way. “People seem to think we would address issues that are interior, which we don’t,” said Ms. Kerr.
Council members Roger Martindell and Kevin Wilkes recused themselves from the meeting last Tuesday because of conflicts of interest. Mr. Martindell, a lawyer, cited legal work he had done for the principal of the firm that drafted a report for supporters of the proposal, while Mr. Wilkes, an architect, said he had a client who lives in the proposed district. Judith Scheide, a Library Place resident opposed to the designation, asked Ms. Moore to recuse herself. Ms. Scheide questioned whether Ms. Moore had met with supporters of the district when she was running for office and promised them she would vote for the measure if they voted for her.
“I did not make any promises to vote,” Ms. Moore asserted, adding that the mayor only votes if there is a tie. “That’s not true. I did not have a meeting with them.” Ms. Moore then warned Ms. Scheide and others in the audience that unruly behavior would not be tolerated. “I can tell you right now that this meeting isn’t going to be like the last one,” she said.
Once the public comment portion of the meeting began, several residents lined up to speak. Kim Pimley, who lives on Library Place, said that about 52 percent of those in the district do not want it to be designated historic. “We’re in the majority,” she said. “We do not want this. Do not over-regulate us.” But her neighbor John Heilner, who has been involved in supporting the proposal since its inception, questioned her figures.
Mr. Heilner, among the few who spoke in favor of the designation, has said that there are others who share his views but are afraid to voice them. Those who support the measure say that the neighborhood’s character is in danger of changing as homes are torn down and replaced with new ones that don’t fit in “This area we are talking about is the so-called treasured western section. It is the most beautiful, historic, most desired neighborhood in Princeton,” said Mary Heilner, adding, “The houses are from a graceful period in time, and are part of what makes Princeton so special.”
But most of the residents who spoke at the meeting were opposed to the designation. B.J. Booth of Morven Place said, “If you add a process that is not needed, you are adding another level of bureaucracy. You’re going to have people fleeing from these houses and it will be very difficult to sell.”
Nick Karp of Boudinot Street said, “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should. This isn’t going to be the Wild West if you don’t rezone. There will still be regulations.” Hodge Road resident Scott Sipprelle added that the neighborhood was “overwhelmingly opposed” to the designation. “Put this process to an end,” he urged Council.
Mark Solomon, the attorney for those against the designation, commented, “You’ve heard the people speak. We have, at every step, voiced our opposition … government should not go where it is not required to go.”
Following the lengthy public comment portion of the meeting, Council president Barbara Trelstad, a former resident of the western section, said she is concerned about preserving its character. “A house was torn down on Hodge five years ago, and replaced by a new, modern house,” she said. “There are a couple of others on Library Place. Tough economic times have stemmed the tide of larger tear-downs and huge McMansions going up, but still …”
Her concerns were echoed by Council member Jo Butler, who said she used to live in a historic district in Philadelphia and wished her Princeton house was located in one. “I don’t think the historic designation process is that onerous,” she said. “Trust me. The new government does not want to deal with this.”
Ms. Trelstad, Ms. Butler, Heather Howard and Jenny Crumiller then voted to introduce the ordinance and send it to the Planning Board for review. The audience made their displeasure known.