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Thursday, August 27, 2009

The problem with Historic Preservation

Maybe not THE problem, but AN IMPORTANT PROBLEM confronting Plainfield's Historic Preservation Commission.

The spectacle of yet another property owner having to come before the Commission in regard to work on the exterior of their property where the owner claimed to be unaware of their obligation to have proposed work reviewed by the HPC was witnessed yet again on Tuesday evening.

A long discussion ensued among HPC commissioners after the applicant left the meeting, highlighted by consultant Gail Hunton's plea that a way needs to be found to both enforce the legislation which created Plainfield's historic districts and the Historic Preservation Commission, and to do so in a way that is supportive and not adversarial.

One suggestion floated was to put an informational ride-along piece in the tax bill mailing at least once a year. I'm not sure how helpful that would be if owners aren't even aware they live in an historic district.

There seem to be two points here: one that property owners are unaware of their obligation, and the other that Plainfielders generally are unaware of the beneficial effect of historic preservation efforts on property values CITYWIDE.

It seems to me there could be a more effective way to address at least the first issue.

And that would be to enlist the real estate community at the most important point in the cycle -- when a property exchanges hands.

Sellers and realtors are subject to many conditions -- smoke and CO² alarm certificates, asbestos, radon and underground storage tank tests, and even the size, placement and duration of 'FOR SALE' signs (for example, South Plainfield in today's Courier -- see here) -- in the sales process, and it is the one point at which the municipality can get everyone's attention.

So why not use it to the advantage of Plainfield's historic districts and properties?

How about an ordinance that requires every real estate broker offering a Plainfield property for sale to --
  1. Include a notice in the listing if a property is in a Historic District or is landmarked that the new owners will subsequently be bound by the rules regarding changes to the property's exterior.

  2. Obtain from the city personnel responsible for monitoring historic properties a form letter designating the property by both street address and lot and block number, confirming that the real estate professional is hereby complying with the ordinance, and

  3. Require the countersignature of the new owners at the closing on the property sale, this countersigned form to be kept on file by the city personnel responsible for monitoring historic properties, and

  4. Provide for a fine if the real estate broker fails to comply with both requirements.
Of course, this would oblige the City, in good conscience, to make an effort to supply any all brokers with the tools needed to comply (access to up-to-date and accurate maps of the historic districts, and an online version of the historic preservation ordinance).

The advantage is the City is applying pressure at the point at which it is most likely to have the full attention -- and cooperation -- of the concerned parties. Money rules!

Then there is the other side of the issue, the long-term, community-wide educational task of helping ALL PROPERTY OWNERS understand that a benefit of strong enforcement of the rules in the Historic Districts spills over in regard to value of all other properties. It can be a tide that lifts all boats.

Of course, that would require the Robinson-Briggs administration to take up the cause in a pro-active way.

But why wouldn't it?

The mayor and any of her cabinet living in Plainfield could benefit, just like every other property owner.

And who knows, someday she -- or they -- may put their house on the market.

-- Dan Damon
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Anonymous said...

why must we check back later? put up your blog,and be done with it.never mind checking back

Anonymous said...


I assume that the testiness of the commenter at 5:43 am is because he or she is chomping at the bit to get your latest posting! If it is just plain rudeness, maybe the commenter should be reminded that this is your personal blog, and you are under no obligation to have it up at a particular time for the convenience of readers. If you say "check back later," I am assuming that you haven't finished with the story, or that you have something else that needs to get done, like running an errand, doing laundry, washing your car. You spoil us, Dan, but that doesn't mean readers should be ungracious.

Dan said...

To 5:43 AM --

It has to do with putting together TWO blogs every day; it's a placeholder until CLIPS is done.

You could always make a note to just check back after 10 AM or so and save yourself being aggravated.

Dan said...

Thanks, 8:39 --

Even the best of us are subject to having our "Maxine moments"....


Anonymous said...

I think your suggestions are good, and I also think it should be a state law, not just a city ordinance. The only thing this city has going for it right now is our housing stock. For goodness sakes, mayor, don't mess that up too!

Anonymous said...

I was just thinking this week about the associations that historic districts are supposed to have. There are six residential districts and I think only two districts have active associations. This may be part of the problem. But I know that keeping one together is very difficult, due to absentee ownership and lack of promotion by the administration.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't help the cause or indicate a committment by the administration when the Director of Public Works and Urban Development stated early in her Plainfield tenure that we have too many historic districts and some need to be dismantled. Guess who oversees the building and inspections division who issues the permits ...

Anonymous said...

It would be unbecoming of me to remind you that every PAID staff [and consultants] who makes these decisions lives OUTSIDE of Plainfield. So I will not. So may I ask? How many of the construction jobs in town are hiring Plainfield Citizens as Rick Taylor would have?

J Galvin said...

I read this latest blog entry with great interest since being a past member and past chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission. During my tenure on the Commission I've seen a number of such scenarios played out. There are two type of scenarios, the first one being the homeowner does work on their home without a building permit, the way the process works if a homeowner applies for a building permit the Inspections division is to inform the homeowner of the process, if the homeowner chooses not to follow what is required by law then who's fault is it, certainly not the HPC. There have been occasions in the past the inspection division has provided erroneous information. The second scenario is that the homeowner is unaware they purchased a house in a historic district. During my tenure as chairman I normally tried to strike an compromise between the HPC and the homeowner if I felt the homeowner was unknowingly misinformed.

The HPC has notified local realtors over the years of the districts because we kept on getting " my realtor never told me I'm buying in an historic district", which is even more perplexing is that there are a hand full of realtors who sell in Plainfield and are residents don't mention homes are in historic districts. One of them considers all of Ward 2 to be "Sleepy Hollow".

The HPC had a website explaining the process, showing the districts via maps and had its "Design Guidelines" book online which helped homeowners with making the proper choices in renovating/repairing their homes was also featured on the site, unfortunately the current city administration stopped paying for the website and was going to link it up with the new and improved city website but that fell into the deep abyss. We applied for a state grant to translate the Design Guidelines into Spanish but were turned down. In the past events were held in the library promoting the historic districts. The HPC does not get a lot of support from the City Administration in the terms of funding; in fact I believe the current administration sees them as an obstruction.

The incident that happened between the homeowner and HPC is unfortunate, the members of the Commission I do believe mean well and have the Historic District's best interest at heart let's not condemn them because of this.

I understand the frustration of the homeowners but I do believe the HPC members are equally frustrated.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting about this. My family and I experienced this same issue when we moved to Plainfield a few years ago. We couldn't understand why the selling real estate agent neglected to mention the fact we were buying in a historic district - especially since we clearly stated we would need to perform a slight renovation before moving in. What was really hilarious (not) was our contractor was able to obtain a building permit and still we were not advised of the historic review process. When did we find out? When one of the historic society "dictators" happened to drive by the site. And with that, suddenly the inspectors' office issued warnings and stop work orders. Not even our neighbors (some who were living here more than a decade before us) knew of the requirement to present plans to the society before obtaining permits. During our meeting, I asked the members why it wasn't a requirement for the realtor to advise before purchasing and why, when the deeds are updated and refiled with the city, the society isn't notified so that they may then reach out to the new owner. The fact the society doesn't take a more active role in managing the districts, or soliciting owners to maintain an active society for each, is what creates these adversarial interactions. It really doesn't matter if you're a present or absentee owner. If departments know and don't take steps to inform... what's to be done.

Dan said...

Thanks for the clues to what has/has not been going on, Jim G.!

You're right about the frustration felt by the HPC members, which they expressed the other night.

I wonder if Council President Burney, who sits on the Preservation NJ board, is aware of the issue of the missing website, and whether maybe PNJ has grant money for a worthwhile project like translating the guidelines into Spanish.