Morven Tract Historic District Proposal Advances to Princeton Regional Planning Board for Review

A controversial proposal to designate a portion of the western section of Princeton Borough as a historic district will now go to the Princeton Regional Planning Board for review.

The Princeton Borough Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to introduce an ordinance creating the Morven Tract Historic District. Some members of the audience applauded the move, while others booed, hissed and walked out after the vote.

“If I decide to disobey, will I be put in jail?”  resident Judy Scheide asked the Council during public comment on the proposal. “Well I guess I’m going to be arrested,” she then said several times in the hallway after the vote, as she and her neighbors expressed their outrage.

Council members Heather Howard, Jenny Crumiller, Barbara Trelstad and Jo Butler all voted to introduce the ordinance and refer it to the planning board, which will make recommendations before the Council holds a public hearing and takes a final vote. Councilmen Roger Martindell and Kevin Wilkes recused themselves. Both said they had business relationships that were potential conflicts of interest. Martindell is the lawyer for a consultant hired by supporters of the historic designation, and Wilkes, an architect and builder, has a client who lives in the proposed district.

Martindell kicked off the night full of drama by asking residents whether he should be allowed to make comments as a private citizen from the audience, triggering criticism from two of his fellow council members.

“It’s not up to the public Roger,” Butler said. “It’s your decision and you’ve been advised by our attorney. This is not a popularity contest. Whatever we decide tonight, there will be political fall out. These are all our neighbors. Whatever we decide will be unpopular to half the room. If we make a decision and you jeopardize it, when you were advised by our attorney… I’m asking you as a colleague not  to say anything.”

Martindell agreed not to participate, and he and Wilkes left the room.

Scheide then called on Mayor Yina Moore to recuse herself. Under the Borough form of government, the mayor only votes to break a tie. Scheide accused Moore of meeting with supporters of the historic district when she ran for mayor and promising them she would support the district if they voted for her.

“I did not make any promises,” countered Moore, who cautioned the audience that outbursts made at previous meetings would not be tolerated. Moore still had to pound the gavel and ask people to be quiet several times during the meeting.

The proposed historic district includes 51 properties bound by portions of Library Place, Hodge Road and Bayard Lane. The district is adjacent to the Mercer Hill Historic District, one of four historic districts in Princeton Borough. The other three are Bank Street, Jugtown and the Central historic districts.

A group called the Friends of the Western Section has been lobbying for historic district designation since 2006. Supporters of the designation say the move will protect the area’s unique architectural character and regulate what kind of buildings can replace tear downs, while opponents argue it would create too many restrictions and infringe on homeowners’ property rights.

The Borough’s historic preservation review committee, an advisory body, unanimously agreed last month that the proposed district meets the criteria for historic designation. But members questioning whether the Borough Council should approve the move prior to consolidation. Committee members also suggested that the people who live in the proposed district should be polled on whether they support the designation.

Critics of the district Tuesday night, like Scott Sipprelle of Hodge Road questioned why the Council was ignoring the advice of the review committee and said the issue should be tabled until after consolidation. Review Committee Chair Nora Kerr said the committee suggested waiting until the terms of the new historic district ordinance for the consolidated Princeton are known, nor necessarily waiting for consolidation to occur. Moore added that the Borough and Township have five years to merge their zoning ordinances.

Resident Kim Pimley said the neighborhood has been maintained beautifully for the last 100 years without historic designation.

“We trust our neighbors,” she said. “We don’t distrust the new people who move in. We know thy will do the right thing. Don’t regulate us.”

Pimley said based on land mass, about 52 percent of the district opposes the historic designation.

Resident John Heilner questioned the opposition’s numbers and said a decision should not be based on polling residents anyway. He called on the council to “show leadership, and decide what is in the best interest of the community and community values.” Supporter of the district argue that the designation increases property values and point to studies on the issue and real estate ads highlighting historic district properties to prove their point.

“This area we are talking about is the so-called treasured western section,” Mary Heilner said. “It is the most beautiful, most historic, most desired neighborhood in Princeton. The Princeton Tour Company marches visitors through it and the Princeton Historical Society brings people into the homes to see what the historic houses are like inside…The houses are from a graceful period in time, and are part of what makes Princeton so special.”

Residents who support the plan said they fear that piece by piece, the character of the neighborhood could change because of tear downs that would devalue the neighborhood.

Opponents countered that they pay huge property taxes, that the restrictions would drive down property values, and that fears of new people coming in and building tacky McMansions were unfounded.

Homeowner Tamara Jacobs said the plan made her feel “demoralized, disenfranchised and disincentivized.”

“I’ve spent considerable money restoring my home, which was in grave disrepair when I bought it,” Jacobs said. “I’m inclined to make no more repairs, and put it on the market.”

Laura Todd, who works off the National Trust for Historic Preservation and lives on Boudinot Street, said she fully supports historic districts if they are required, “but our house is simply not historic.” She and other residents accused officials of already making up their minds on the issue and asked if residents were just spinning their wheels by protesting. She asked if officials had any private conversations with supporters of the proposal, and threatened that there would be litigation if the historic district designation is approved.

“These people not going to go quietly into the night,” Todd said. “There will be a  huge protest. If this is a democracy, why can’t we have our say?”

Other residents who live in the western section but outside of the proposed district said they feared other areas could also be designated historic districts. “It is a creeping cancer,” one resident said. “It will destroy other neighborhoods. There are already cars on the streets with photographers snapping pictures of houses, planning the next area of attack.”

Before the vote, council members asked for clarification on the historic review process for properties located in the Borough’s historic districts. Zoning Officer Derek Bridger said any changes that can be seen from  the public right of way are subject to review. Houses designs do not have to “stay frozen in time,” Bridger said, but must confirm to design standards in terms of proportion and mass. Minor changes like window or roof replacements are normally approved through administrative waivers, Bridger said. He cold not recall in instance where the review committee rejected an application.

Trelstad, who used to live in the western section, said a historic home next to her was torn down and replaced by a square box. “It concerns me,” she said. “A house was torn down on Hodge five years ago and replaced by a new modern house. There are a couple of others on Library Place. Tough economic times have stemmed the tide of large tear downs and huge McMansions going in, but still.”

Butler said she lived in a historic district when she was in Philadelphia and wished her Princeton home was located in a historic district. Butler said she did not think the review process in very onerous. She added that Council is trying to clear things up before consolidation. “Trust me, the new government doesn’t want to deal with this,” she said.