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Vol. LXIV, No. 46
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
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Proposed Historic District Spurs Neighbors Debate, Final Verdict Deferred

Dilshanie Perera

A final decision regarding whether or not the proposed Morven Tract historic district would receive approvals was not reached at the conclusion of the Historic Preservation Review Commission’s meeting last week (HPRC), a hearing that had been carried over twice already.

Neighbors mounted arguments for and against the historic district designation, with the Friends of the Western Section advocating for the Morven Tract to be deemed the fifth historic district within the Borough.

The Homeowners of the Western Section decried the move, saying that their autonomous decisions as homeowners would be hampered.

Attorney Mark Solomon representing the Homeowners looked to the Borough Code to “make an appeal to the HPRC’s role in applying the ordinance standard.” Pointing specifically to Section 17A-193A, which governs applications for site plan approval within a historic district, he asked how elements like style, height, and visual compatibility could be maintained in an area that is known for its architectural diversity. “If this district is adopted, how do you apply these rules?”

“What I don’t see is a terribly honest discussion,” Mr. Solomon said, suggesting that those in favor of a historic designation had mapped out the district “that way for political expediency.”

Architect Jeremiah Ford wondered, “If this section in town is historic, what isn’t?”

Admitting that “preservation is desirable,” he said that the Western Section wasn’t in danger of houses being demolished and “McMansions” being built in their stead. “The average individual resident will be constrained by this action,” Mr. Ford added. “The task of building has become harder and harder.”

Mr. Solomon called the Western Section “one of the premiere neighborhoods in Princeton” and noted that all of the neighbors, whether for or against the historic designation, are advocates of preservation. “Those goals would be best advanced in this instance by not designating the district,” he said.

In their rebuttal, the Friends of the Western Section, represented by Richard Hunter of Hunter Research, Inc., emphasized that the proposed area, which includes 51 properties, most of which were built within the “period of significance” from 1870 to 1930, has historical merit.

Borough Attorney Maeve Cannon pointed out that the legal definition for a site that can be set aside for preservation includes any area of “historical, archeological, architectural, or cultural significance.”

Cecelia Tazelaar observed that privately owned properties could be excluded from historic designations on the basis of owner objections only under the National Register. There are no legal provisions for owner opt-out in the State Register or in Princeton Borough.

Neighbors added their voices to the debate during the public comment period. Resident Jill Jachera appealed to the HPRC to follow the letter of the law, while Bill Leventon noted that if his house had been deemed historic he would not have purchased it because “as it is, Princeton has many checks and balances.”

“We don’t need to be encumbered by an extra designation,” Jerry Zeldis agreed.

Judy Scheide said she was against the move, calling it “an intrusion.” She added that “the people who live in these houses can make things look really beautiful. I trust their good taste.”

David Tollman spoke in favor of the designation, pointing out that it endeavors “to protect the rights of the community.”

“The pressures are economic,” declared Austin Newton, who acknowledged that the neighbors themselves are “extraordinarily good in keeping up the properties,” but that he feared that future teardowns may not result in a similar streetscape aesthetic.

John Heilner said the move to designate the district would “protect our community’s scenic and historic gateways,” adding that the area is steeped in town history and heritage.

Wendy Benchley agreed, saying she would “like to have the protection of a historic district.”

Members of the HPRC wanted to have their final questions on municipal land use laws and Borough ordinances answered before engaging in a public discussion about the historic status of the Morven Tract and whether it should be deemed a historic district. A notice will be sent out to the neighbors and the public ahead of the next meeting. Once the HPRC makes its recommendation, formal action will be taken by Borough Council.

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