Cranford urged to adopt ‘historic preservation element’

Droescher’s Mill, located at the intersection of Lincoln Avenue and Lincoln Park East, and the Crane-Phillips House, right, on Union Avenue North next to the Cranford Municipal Building, are both listed on the state and national registers of historic places. Those designations limit what changes can be made to the buildings. Cranford officials are considering whether to give township land use officials similar power.

CRANFORD, N.J. — The township’s Historic Preservation Advisory Board suggested officials consider adding a “historic preservation element” into the municipality’s master plan, a change that could guide or restrict homeowners making renovations to their houses.

The Historic Preservation Advisory Board is charged with “preserving the character” of Cranford. But advisory board member Stephen Saltzman said at the Cranford Planning Board’s Oct. 2 meeting that his fellow board members are wary of making any changes.

“This has come up in our discussions,” Saltzman said. “Do we want to be in a position where we can tell homeowners what they can and cannot do with their properties? We do not want to have the authority and the dictatorial rule to restrict homeowners with what they can do with their property.

“Any discussion about any ordinance that we would recommend, that the Planning Board would recommend, to the Township Committee … we never got to that point. We were thinking more along the lines of establishing recognition and tools for the town to use, as opposed to in terms of restrictions to homeowners.”

A timeline for adoption of changes, or inclusion at all, is uncertain for the “preservation element,” but Salzman said that since a town’s master plan is updated every 10 years, the discussion is appropriate.

“I see this as a 10-year project,” he said. “Every 10 years, the master plan is reviewed. It’s a road map for our advisory board in the next 10 years. If this becomes approved, this is our roadmap.”

Cranford has two sites listed on the U.S. and New Jersey registers of historic places, the Crane-Phillips House on Union Avenue North next to the Cranford Municipal Building, and Droescher’s Mill, located at the intersection of Lincoln Avenue and Lincoln Park East. When a property is designated as a historical site, there are limits as to changes that can be made to them, under federal and state law.

The changes suggested by the Historic Preservation Advisory Board appeared to come down to either creating guidelines that would not be strictly enforced, or creating stringent rules that would affect Zoning Board decisions, including the types of applications that board would approve.

Elevating the advisory board to a commission via an ordinance would give it more authority as to what it can approve or disallow, Planning Board member Sarah Oliver pointed out. She said it was a long-term goal of the board. But some Planning Board members expressed concern about additional restrictions on township redevelopment and to residents’ own home renovations.

“Can you have both?” Christopher Chapman said. “Can you have this commission that helps establish guidelines, but yet people don’t have to follow those guidelines? Can you accomplish the same thing by still being an advisory board without going to the step of having a commission?”
Others on the board appeared in favor of a more restrictive approach.

“I know that I won’t be the popular opinion at this table, but in order to save and preserve, you’re going to have to put some restrictions on people,” Planning Board member Julie Didzbalis said. “You want to keep some of these lovely buildings, you have to think about this. There are different approaches, but if you want to keep some of these things here, you’re going to have to go on a stricter route.”

Sustainable New Jersey, a nonprofit certification program that rewards municipalities that meet certain goals with financial incentives and training, awards townships a points system based on their historic preservation, making them eligible for grants. However, this is not the primary focus of the historic preservation element, Salzman said.