Success Stories – Historic Districts
A Successful Historic District: Using Land Development Ordinances to Protect Assets and Built Suitable New Assets
The historic district movement in the United States began in 1931, when Charleston, South Carolina, adopted a local ordinance designating an "Old and Historic District". Today, there are more than 2,300 historic districts in the United States. A local historic district is an area where historic buildings and their surroundings are protected from modification or demolition by public review. According to the National Park Service, "Local legislation is one of the best ways to protect the historic character of buildings, streetscapes, neighborhoods, and special landmarks from inappropriate alterations, new construction, and other poorly conceived work, as well as outright demolition."
Many people assume that a historic building is "protected" if it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In fact, federal historic preservation law only applies to projects that involve federal grants or tax credits. As a result, local historic preservation ordinances are extremely important. They can be used across an entire district to control inappropriate exterior remodeling, and demolition. According to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, "Preservation is most effective in communities that have historic preservation programs managed at the local government level."
In Pennsylvania, municipalities can use the 1961 Historic District Act (Act 167) and the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (Act 67 & 68) to zone for protection and preservation purposes. In New Jersey, municipalities can use historic preservation zoning and the Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL) to identify, evaluate, designate, and regulate historic resources. DVRPC has identified four communities, Bordentown City (Burlington County), Haddonfield Borough (Camden County), Newtown Borough (Bucks County), and West Chester Borough (Chester County), which have historic districts to have successfully protected historic resources and maintained or revitalized their downtowns.
|Size (Sq Mi)
|Population Density (people/sq mi)
|Acres of Local Historic District
|% of town
|Burlington County, NJ
|1.0 sq mi
|Camden County, NJ
|2.9 sq mi
|Bucks County, PA
|0.6 sq mi
|West Chester Borough
|Chester County, PA
|1.8 sq mi
Source: U.S. Census, 2010
Haddonfield Borough, Camden County, New Jersey – Layering Tools
Haddonfield is a residential community in Camden County, New Jersey with tree-lined streets, historic homes, excellent schools, and a bustling downtown. The Borough is approximately 3 square miles in size and was home to 11,593 residents in 2010. It is located 18 miles from Philadelphia, along the PATCO Speedline. Haddonfield has won numerous accolades, including being ranked by Philadelphia magazine as "Best Main Street Shopping" in 2009 and "Best Downtown Shopping Area" by Courier Post readers for multiple years. Its charming, lovingly preserved downtown has over 200 shops, restaurants, and art galleries.
Haddonfield's first European settler, Francis Collins, built a plantation in 1682, making it one of the oldest communities in South Jersey. Haddonfield quickly became a center of commerce in the mid-1700s. Farmers came to town to do business with blacksmiths, tanners, saddlers, general stores, and taverns. Both British and American forces marched through Haddonfield during the American Revolution. In 1777, the New Jersey Assembly met at Haddonfield's Indian King Tavern and declared that New Jersey was no longer a colony, but a State. In 1904 the Indian King Tavern became the first historic site the State of New Jersey purchased.
Haddonfield's Historic District
The impetus for the creation of the Haddonfield Historic District came in the 1960s, when developers wanted to tear down much of the historic area for modern office complexes. In response, the community passed a referendum establishing the Historic District in 1971. The ordinance protected the town's historic core from demolition and continues to maintain the historic appearance Haddonfield is known for today.
Haddonfield has one of the oldest historic districts in New Jersey; it was the second municipality in New Jersey to establish a historical preservation district. The District was listed on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places in 1980 and the National Register of Historic Places two years later. Since Haddonfield's ordinance was only the second in the state, they borrowed from the first – Cape May.
Property owners in the district are required to obtain permission from the Planning Board before making any exterior changes to their structure. In Haddonfield, the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) is an advisory board to the Planning Board. The HPC discusses details, such as siding, windows, eave details, gutter types, roof slopes, roof materials, spindles, and hand rail details. Haddonfield's current Zoning Officer has been working for the town since 1986.
One unique aspect of Haddonfield's Historic District Ordinance is that it lists properties by address rather than referencing a map. This recently caused some controversy when a property owner at the edge of the district legally combined two lots, one of which was in the historic district and the other of which was not. This lot consolidation expanded the footprint of the address in the historic district, and the property owners were upset that they could not alter aspects of their parcel that they would have been allowed to do had they not combined the two lots.
Despite the fact that the local ordinance lists the properties by address, the entire district is also on the New Jersey State Register of Historic Places. Therefore, when the borough decides to do street improvements, they have to be approved by the HPC, the Planning Board, and the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). It is an extra step, and it makes the process more time-consuming and expensive, but it also ensures that the town uses materials that blend in.
In the mid-2000s, the Historic Preservation Commission started mailing a letter to historic district residents on an annual basis to remind them that their property is in the district and outline when and how to obtain a Certificate of Appropriateness. Residents are also encouraged consult a publication called "Historic Houses in Haddonfield: A Preservation Guide." If residents require additional assistance, they may contact the Historic Preservation Commission's Consultant, Lisa Soderberg, a historical architect.
Business Improvement District and Retail Coordinator
Haddonfield has also taken several other steps to ensure that its downtown—the center of its historic district—remains vibrant, attractive, and thriving. The Partnership for Haddonfield is the management corporation for Haddonfield's Business Improvement District, which was created in 2004. Haddonfield employs a retail coordinator. The retail coordinator actively recruits new retailers to Haddonfield's 280,000 square feet of retail space based on recommendations in the Retail Recruitment Strategy created by Downtown Works.
Form Based Code for Downtown
In the mid-2000s, a property owner wanted to put a 2-story addition on a building in Kings Court in the heart of downtown. The addition required several variances related to bulk requirements and it also required Historic Preservation Commission approval. Because the project took so long to be approved, there was a change in the composition of the Historic Preservation Commission, and suddenly the new members wanted to change the columns that former members of the HPC had already approved. In effect, the building was approved one side at a time. Partially in response to piecemeal projects such as this, and also in response to fears that a big box store might buy up and demolish an entire block of the downtown, Haddonfield decided to adopt a modified Form Based Code (FBC) for its downtown district. It was one of the first towns in New Jersey to have a FBC. Haddonfield's Zoning Officer explains: "While the historic district ordinance is great, and it protects existing buildings, it doesn't say what new buildings should look like." The Form Based Code regulates the construction of new buildings to ensure that they are consistent with the style of buildings that already exist in the downtown area. It requires certain architectural details, and a periodically changing roofline.
A Good Sign Ordinance
In Haddonfield, the Historic Preservation Commission reviews and approves the color and materials of all signs within and outside of the historic district. Signs can only have three descriptors, not an entire list of products for sale. Signs cannot be internally illuminated. While some business owners complain that they are limited to very small signs, but the Zoning Officer contends they do not need a bigger sign because auto traffic is limited to 25 miles per hour.
Enforcing the Property Maintenance Code
Haddonfield combats deterioration through neglect by enforcing its property maintenance code. The zoning officer says, "Enforcement is the only way to handle that. Once the structures get so bad, it's hard to get them to come back."
Other Local Organizations Interested in Preservation
The Historical Society of Haddonfield's current headquarters are found in Greenfield Hall, a red brick, two and a half story Georgian mansion built in 1841. The building became the headquarters of the Historical Society of Haddonfield in 1961. The Society exhibits various items from its large collections. The Society also provides speakers, education programs, booklets, pamphlets, and a quarterly Bulletin. Today, there are about 500 members of the Society, and many active volunteers. The Society has a great deal of information about who lived in the homes, as well as pictures and other historical documents. These resources help the HPC members make some of their decisions.
Over the years, there have been pushes to expand the historic district, especially in the 1990s, and most recently in 2009. Usually, these expansion pushes are in response to something, such as the recent demolition of a house outside of the historic district on Redman Avenue designed by notable local architect Clement Remington. Its demolition led to the formation of a non-profit group called Preservation Haddonfield, whose mission is to educate about the history and architectural significance of Haddonfield, encourage the restoration of historic buildings, promote the expansion of the historic district, and encourage future development that is consistent with the borough's historic character.
Steve Walko, the zoning officer, says Haddonfield's historic district is successful because there is broad-based support for it: "Business owners support it. So does the public and the commissioners. The kids are taught this is a historic place and historic things happened here… That's what makes it successful." He has worked in other towns that only had historic districts. It was not nearly as embedded into the town's thought processes and tied into the fabric of the community. Walko adds, "It's not an accident that it looks like this. Part of the reason it looks like this is because we have a Historic Preservation Commission looking after it."
West Chester Borough, Chester County, Pennsylvania – Finding
West Chester's Business Improvement District describes West Chester as a "picturesque and historic community that has both small-town charm and cosmopolitan flair." Starting in 1769, a small village developed around the crossroads of High and Market streets. In 1786, the town became Chester County's county seat. It adopted the name West Chester in 1799, when the borough incorporated. The National Trust for Historic Preservation named West Chester one of America's Dozen Distinctive Destinations in 2006, and in 2008 it was inducted into DVRPC's Classic Towns program.
The borough established a Historical Review Board in 1972, but it did not have any legal authority because the ordinance establishing the group was not based on Pennsylvania's Act 167. In the 1970s, the Chestnut Street Friends Meeting House in downtown West Chester was torn down and replaced with a parking lot. This galvanized residents. In the early 1980s, the owner of the Warner Theater, an Art Deco movie palace that sat 1,600 people, wanted to tear the building down. The borough unsuccessfully tried to deny the demolition application. When the town lost the Warner Theater, local residents were again very upset. Suddenly, the political climate changed, and there was more support for adopting Historic Architectural Review Board (HARB) regulations. One important step was showing the elected officials that a historic district was economically beneficial, instead of an onerous regulation.
In the early 1980s, the Chamber of Commerce gave a grant to a planning firm to nominate West Chester's Business District to the National Register. The district was listed on the register in 1984. Between 1986 and 1988, when the borough was rewriting its zoning code, it used the National Register district boundaries to create a local historic district in compliance with Pennsylvania's 1961 Historic District Act (Act 167).
Most of the West Chester's HARB properties are commercial buildings, and only a few are residential. As a result, Mike Perrone, West Chester's Zoning Officer since 1986, says, "Ninety percent of the time, HARB applications deal with signs and awnings."
Many of those involved in establishing the historic district do not think it particularly innovative. Mike Perrone, the Zoning Officer, says, "most of that stuff is pretty boiler plate." Even Ray Ott, Jr., AICP, who helped write the portion of the zoning code related to the historic district, feels "It's really not unique." He says he tried to be concise and not just re-state the Secretary of the Interior's standards. He also tried to emphasize structural issues, like appropriate cornices and windows, while de-emphasizing minor issues, like paint color. "Houses," he says, "can always be repainted."
Managing a building owner's expectations may also lead to success. Mike Perrone says he is very upfront with applicants: "Here are the timeframes, here's what you're looking at. There might be some initial shock if they're not familiar with the process. Applications must be submitted 10 days ahead of time. You can have a new sign up in 3 weeks if you have your act together. But, like anything else, if you procrastinate or don't read thoroughly, it will take longer."
In addition to the historic district ordinance, West Chester also has a Historic Carriage House Ordinance, a Retail Overlay District Ordinance, and a Height Overlay District Ordinance (adopted in 2001, 2002, and 2008, respectively). The carriage ordinance allows alternative uses in carriages houses as an incentive to maintain them. The retail overlay encourages retail in the blocks near the town center. The height overlay allows some buildings to be over 45 feet but less than 90 feet in height. It also provides Architectural Design Standards and Historic Preservation Standards.
Creating a Business Improvement District
Established in 2000, the West Chester Business Improvement District (BID) has been renewed in both 2005 and 2010. The goal of the organization is to fund and implement programs in line with three general goals: increase customer traffic and sales; retain, expand, and recruit viable businesses; and advocate for the interests of downtown to government agencies. All commercial properties in the district contribute to funding the district via an annual assessment. The 15 members of the BID Board of Directors are all downtown business and property owners. The BID has succeeded in raising property values and providing hundreds of prospects with business start-up or expansion information, among other BID-related activities.
Mike Perrone attributes West Chester's thriving downtown historic district to a change in the parking regulations. He declares: "The renaissance of West Chester started out when we eliminated the parking requirement for existing buildings." Previously, when owners wanted to renovate a space to a more intensive use (such as from a retail store to a restaurant), they had to provide parking on site, which was often impossible in a compact, densely-developed historic downtown. As a result, when a store went out of business, the storefront often sat vacant. At one point, 3 of the 4 corners at the intersection of High Street and Gay Street—the heart of downtown—were vacant. Peggy Dawson Schmidt, who served as West Chester's Commerce Director in the mid- to late-1980s, wanted to attract Iron Hill Brewery to a former Woolworth's drugstore downtown. Peggy did most of the legwork in connecting the owners of the brewery with the owners of the Woolworth building, but the parking requirements for changing the use to a restaurant proved too onerous. Thanks to her leadership, West Chester changed its Zoning Code to allow buildings to change to a more intense use without requiring additional parking.
West Chester Borough and the West Chester Business Improvement District initiated the drive to create a Comprehensive Historic Preservation Plan. Ray Ott & Associates was selected as the consultant to complete the plan, which was adopted by Borough Council on April 20, 2011. During the creation of the West Chester Comprehensive Historic Preservation Plan, Ray Ott & Associates discovered a really active network of neighborhood organizations in West Chester. During the course of creating the plan, the firm talked to over 100 people. One of the things that came up frequently in the public meetings was that residents wanted better education about historic preservation matters. Therefore, the first activity in the plan's Implementation Program is "Education." Implementation strategies to achieve this goal include: preparing a brochure about the National Register Districts and how the Tax Credit works, preparing a brochure about the HARB district, encouraging walking tours, establishing a separate section of the borough website with preservation information, creating a once-a-year preservation workshop geared toward homeowners, and expanding heritage tourism and marketing efforts.
Bordentown City, New Jersey – People Making a Difference
The City of Bordentown is small community along the Delaware River in Burlington County, New Jersey, approximately 6 miles southeast of Trenton. Its strategic location at a point where the Delaware River becomes impassable for larger boats as well as on the land route between Philadelphia and New York allowed the area to become a thriving trading post in colonial times.
Manufacturing, shipping, and transportation have always been integral to Bordentown City. Bordentown City became a terminus of a section of the Camden and Amboy Railroad in the 1830s. Bordentown City was also a stop for canal boats traveling along the 44-mile Delaware and Raritan Canal. Since 2004, New Jersey Transit's RiverLINE, which connects Camden and Trenton, has offered a light rail stop within walking distance of downtown.
Bordentown City contains a mix of architectural styles, including Federal, Victorian, arts & craft bungalows, and Sears Four squares. Although the local historic district has been around since the early 1980s, Bordentown City's current Historic District Ordinance is very new: it was adopted on December 13, 2010. Prior to this date, the Planning Board served as a Landmarks Commission and performed functions similar to a Historic Preservation Commission.
Bob Erickson formerly worked as a Building Inspector and is currently the Director of Public Works for Bordentown City. He also served as the historic preservation officer prior to the creation of the historic district. He reviewed plans and gave reports to the Planning Board. Erickson wanted to put the entire town under the protection of the local historic district, but there was resistance because many people did not want more regulation. Bordentown City used a model ordinance that was developed by State of New Jersey to create its historic district, and adopted Secretary of the Interior's Standards. Similar to West Chester in Pennsylvania, Bordentown City opted to avoid the regulation of paint colors and other cosmetic issues and instead concentrate on building façades and architectural details.
In the 1980s, Bordentown City created their local historic district in conjunction with a Main Street program for the purpose of protecting the buildings and revitalizing the streetscape. The Main Street Program is a national preservation-based economic development program run by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Bordentown City's historic district covered the same area as its Main Street district. Town leadership garnered local support for the Main Street program by promoting grant opportunities and 0% interest loans.
Initially, there was a backlash against the Main Street program. Residents feared that it was "another urban renewal program." Erickson cautions other municipalities interested in revitalizing their historic districts through the Main Street Program to hire a Main Street Manager who is both "very knowledgeable and is a people person." Bordentown City's second Main Street Manager, Holly, was a dynamic person who ran the Main Street Program's day-to-day affairs. Erickson says, "She made all the difference in the world." She was able to speak to different groups of people—homeowners, business owners, contractors—and put their fears to rest.
Big Things – Like Funding
Bordentown City received several grants to help with their downtown revitalization efforts. They acquired Community Development and Block Grant (CDBG) funds, as well as funds from New Jersey's Neighborhood Preservation Program (NPP). Erickson calculates that between CDBG funds, NPP funds, local match, and Burlington County's contribution, a total of $700,000 in public funds were spent. In turn, this public investment leveraged $2.5 million from the private sector over a 9-year period.
Little Things – Like Lighting
Because of Bordentown City's small size, it did not have enough funds to put in a historically appropriate lamp post every 20 feet as other cities. Instead, the town opted to strategically add lights. City officials approached downtown property owners and asked if they would like to have a light installed in front of their property. The lights were then wired directly into each building. Each property owner pays the electricity costs associated with the street light in front of their building – a small amount. Erickson says, "The hand-crafted lamps create the [small town, historic] ambiance."
Technical Expertise and Quick Turnaround Times on Permits
Although there is a Uniform Construction Code in New Jersey, at the time when Bordentown City created its historic district, it had its own local enforcement agency, with knowledgeable plumbing, fire, and construction inspectors. Bob Erickson explains, "When someone came in for renovations, we could give them instant service. We put a lot of effort into speeding up the process. Businesses were given the fast track. They still had to comply with the law, but the inspections would get done quickly." It also helped that Erickson, a building inspector at the time, learned the construction trade while in high school from a contractor who specialized in historic preservation. Because Erickson had hands-on experience, he easily communicated with builders.
Integrating Historic Preservation
In addition to the Historic Preservation Commission and the Bordentown Historical Society, the remainder of the community and its Downtown Business Association are very committed to historic preservation. Both Jennifer Ficarotta and Bob Erickson credit the business and building owners who are willing to invest in their properties. Bordentown City's Sustainability Plan includes a goal related to historic preservation: Goal #4 states to "Conserve the historic, small town character of the City," and the strategies to accomplish this goal include: to conserve and expand the historic district within the City, strengthen local historic preservation review and controls, respect existing architectural styles, preserve local historic landmark buildings and historic place, record history for future generations, and educate residents about history of Bordentown City.
Connecting to Trails
Sites within Bordentown City are part of several larger historical and cultural trails in the state. For example, Patience Lovell Wright's house is a stop on the New Jersey Women's Heritage Trail. The Francis Hopkinson house in Bordentown City is a stop on the Delaware River Heritage Trail, a 60-mile multi-use loop trail currently under construction that will showcase the cultural and natural resources of the upper portion of the Delaware River estuary. The completed trail will link 24 communities on both sides of the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Trenton.
Bob Erickson believes Bordentown City's historic district is successful because elected officials were behind it and the City had resources to enforce it. Furthermore, building owners inside and outside of the historic district are working to preserve their properties. In 2002, the Sisters of Mercy monastery on Crosswicks Street officially re-opened the Clare Estate, a senior-citizen residence. Community Investment Strategies Inc. renovated the 10-acre property, which now contains 137 units. The project included a $3 million federal tax credit for historic preservation, as well as other tax credits and loans for low-income housing. The City of Bordentown offered a 30-year real estate tax abatement.
Newtown Borough, Bucks County, Pennsylvania – A Strong HARB
Newtown Borough is a small municipality entirely surrounded by Newtown Township in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, approximately 28 miles northeast of Philadelphia. While the borough has fewer than 2,500 residents, the surrounding township has 19,000 residents. The land that makes up both communities was part of an enormous tract of land William Penn purchased from Native Americans in the area in 1682. Two years later, William Penn's surveyor, Thomas Holme, drew a plan for a new settlement straddling Newtown Creek. In the center, there was a narrow rectangular property called the town common, while larger parcels fanned out. In the beginning, Penn referred to the area as New Township, which was shorted to Newtown. Newtown served as the county seat of Bucks County between 1726 and 1813, before the seat moved to Doylestown, which is more centrally located. Newtown incorporated as a borough on April 16, 1838.
Newtown Borough manages to blend its historical charm with the necessities of modern life. For example, the tree-lined main street in town—State Street—is home to both the Newtown Theater, which is said to be the oldest movie theater in the United States, as well as a Starbucks. There are locally owned businesses, like the Newtown Hardware House, which has been in business for 142 years, as well as national chains such as Gap. Newtown's quality of life has garnered it enough votes to be featured as one of "America's Coolest Small Towns" in the September 2011 issue of Budget Travel magazine.
There are several different organizations that support historical preservation in the Newtown area. The township and the borough each have its own Historical and Architectural Review Board (HARB). The Newtown Borough HARB has jurisdiction in the Newtown Borough historic district, which was established in 1969. Newtown Borough's local historic district covers a large percentage (almost 50%) of the borough and includes the commercial district. The Newtown Township HARB has jurisdiction in the Newtown Township historic district, which is centered on Sycamore Street, west of Newtown Borough.
Newtown Borough's HARB has to approve any exterior changes that are visible from public streets, alleys, parking lots, or walkways, whether it is new construction or changes to existing structures. The Borough's HARB regulates exterior structural issues; it does not regulate paint colors. Structures are supposed to be repaired or replaced in kind. The HARB's recommendations are presented to Borough Council, who has the ultimate decision-making authority.
While each of the two municipalities has its own HARB, they share a Joint Historical Commission, which advises Borough Council and the Township Board of Supervisors on the protection and preservation of historically and/or architecturally significant structures in Newtown Township and Newtown Borough. The Historical Commission has 4 members from the Borough and 4 from the Township. They comment on demolition permits. In cases where a particular property is also in a HARB district, the Commission and the respective HARB coordinate.
Jeff Marshall is a member of the Newtown Joint Historical Commission. When it comes to proposed demolitions, he does not give a lot of answers; instead, he asks a lot of questions: Is it a character-defining element in the community? Is the building an asset to the community? Would the character of the community be changed if the building was demolished? The answers may change depending on what the building is going to be replaced with. Jeff contends that a bi-municipal organization works well. Despite the political boundaries between the borough and the township, residents usually ignore municipal borders.
Unfortunately, there is little enforcement power for demolitions outside of the HARB districts. Jeff admits that the Historical Commission has the power to delay a demolition but not necessarily to stop it entirely. However, there are some success stories. The Historical Commission was able to convince a developer in Newtown Township to move a mid-1700s stone house to another location in the proposed development rather than demolish it.
In an era of constrained municipal budgets, towns across the country have resorted to charging for every application they require or service they offer. One of the unique aspects of Newtown Borough's historic district is that the Borough does not charge a fee for HARB review. They want to have a consistent, pleasing streetscape, but they recognize that the extra time and additional review is onerous; they do not want to add a financial burden to properties within the historic district. HARB Chair Jim McAuliffe says charging fees is discouraging.
An Informative, Friendly, and Pragmatic Approach
Jo-Anne Brown works for Keystone Municipal Services, a certified third party inspection agency and has served as Newtown Borough's Zoning Officer and HARB Administrator since 2007. Jo-Anne likes to make everyone happy, and so she provides a lot of hands-on instruction for applicants throughout the HARB review process. When a property owner comes in to pick up an application, she takes them through the application and informational material. These materials were prepared for the Borough of Newtown by Dominique M. Hawkins, AIA of Preservation Design Partnership through a grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC).
Although Newtown Borough's HARB application form is very detailed and informative, Jo-Anne makes the process easier by explaining things in person, keeping these meetings friendly and informative. As a result, people have a much more relaxed attitude regarding the HARB review.
The friendly, approachable manner extends from the pre-application meeting to the HARB meetings as well. Jim McAuliffe, a board certified architect, is Newtown's HARB Chairperson. He explains: "We run the meetings in a very approachable manner. HARB had a reputation for being a pain. We've tried to make it less of a burden. There's a more relaxed atmosphere. We try to run meetings efficiently. They're very conversational and transparent, not intimidating."
In addition to keeping the HARB process friendly and educational, the HARB also tries to be pragmatic. Jim McAuliffe explains: "It's certainly not a Williamsburg. It's pragmatic preservation. People live there, work there—it has to be part of the present time. It's a give and take. It's not like you're trying to create a glass covered town. You have to have it be a workable process. You want the building to be as nice as you can. But the owners have to be able to live in it too."
Consistency in Decision Making
Mike Hutchinson, the Vice Chair of Newtown's HARB, says, "Being consistent in your decisions is really important." HARB Chair Jim McAuliffe points out that Newtown Borough has a much more consistent approach with administering the ordinance than other towns: "We are very consistent when we deal with changes to existing structures." Newtown Borough insists on replacement in-kind, and does not allow wood siding to be replaced with vinyl. The results are clear: Newtown Borough has a consistency of appearance that strengthens and maintains the integrity of the district.
Newtown Borough combats deterioration through neglect through enforcement of the Property Maintenance Code. Zoning Officer Jo-Anne Brown dispenses with the formality of writing someone an official Notice of Violation letter. Newtown Borough is such a small community that it is easier to pick up the phone and speak to a homeowner or business owner directly. She explains to them what the problem is and what their options are for fixing it. She says, "We don't want to end up in court. We don't want to start a legal process." In the four years Jo-Anne has worked in Newtown, she has only filed one official Notice of Violation.
Employing a Historic Preservation Consultant
Marcia Scull attributes part of the success of Newtown Borough's historic district to the Borough's Historic Preservation Consultant. She explains: "What have helped us in the past 10 years are [applicants working with] the historic preservation consultant in advance of appearing at the meeting. They can make suggestions and iron out the kinks ahead of time so that by the time the applicants come to the meeting, everything goes smoothly. It's an added expense to the municipality, but in the long run it pays."
Each year, Newtown Borough's HARB gives preservation awards at a Borough Council meeting in May, which is National Preservation Month. HARB President Jim McAuliffe explains, "We can give out awards to as many people as we want. The recipients can be people who have done a project that was reviewed by us or not. Sometimes it's a person who spent a lot of time working with us, or retiring HARB members or borough administration people." Past recipients have included First National Bank for restoring the clock on the corner of Washington Avenue and State Street and the Newtown Historical Association, which coordinated the installation of the Newtown Heritage Walk, a series of 34 signs in front of historically significant structures on State Street in Newtown Borough and Sycamore Street in Newtown Township.
Jo-Anne Brown feels that "greening" buildings, for example, making them more energy efficient, and the inability to be able to obtain certain materials that are no longer available will likely cause issues for the HARB in the future. Like Haddonfield in New Jersey, Newtown Borough also struggles with the issue of new materials that mimic older materials. Whereas slate roofs are very expensive and fall apart easily, there are newer materials that look like slate, cost less and last longer. Glenn Hains poses the question: "Do you allow the modern materials that are made of plastics or aluminum that look like wood siding, or windows of yesteryear? … That's the struggle you have." Jim McAuliffe says the HARB is trying to develop guidelines for new materials.
Another issue brought up by Jeff Marshall and Glenn Hains is that there are some areas in town, where there are tiny bungalows on big lots. To many prospective buyers, the small footprint of the house cannot justify the cost for the property. Land has become so valuable that people buy parcels outside of the historic district and tear down the small houses so that they can replace them with larger ones (sometimes referred to as Parachute Houses), or subdivide the lot. The Borough is looking into expanding the historic district along Center Avenue, which has many structures from the 1920s and 1930s.
The HARB Cannot Achieve Success Alone
While the HARB is a crucial element for a successful historic district, it would not be able to achieve results, without the help of other commissions and ordinances. Former Mayor Hains explains: "I don't know if other districts have been as caring about signs as we have been. We maintain that signs are structures and are part of the historic district." Newtown Borough also has a Shade Tree Commission, an Arbor Day program, and a Borough Council Streets Committee that completed street improvements with sensitivity to materials. "All these committees work independently," explains Glenn Hains, "but they coordinate the look of the town."
Another important element of the historic district's success is the support it receives from the community. Former Mayor Hains explains that it is the residents of Newtown Borough that have made the historic district successful: "Historic zoning makes people think of their house as something larger than themselves. We have an obligation to the community… not just ourselves."