Dispelling the Myths of Historic Preservation

Historic Preservation is a complex discipline, combining elements of architecture, history, art, archaeology, engineering, material science, cultural resources, law, politics and all the building trades. As such, misunderstandings easily arise. Here are a few of the common misconceptions about historic preservation...

If my house is on the State and National Registers of Historic Places, there are special restrictions on what can be done to it.

False. There are no restrictions on what a private property owner can do with his or her own private property that is listed in the State or National Register of Historic Places. If a publicly-funded project impacts property that is on the State or National Register of Historic Places, there is a special review (called a Section 106 Review) performed to determine what, specifically, the impact is and the State Historic Preservation Office attempts to mitigate any negative impact on the listed property.

The appropriateness of changes to a historic property is a matter of taste; what looks good to one person may not look good to another.

False. The appropriateness of changes to a historic property have nothing to do with taste or perceived good looks. There are national standards for the treatment of historic property put out by the Secretary of the Interior that provide a framework for appropriate changes to historic properties. In addition, a municipality may have its own design guidelines to address local architecture and streetscapes.

Historic Preservation will reduce my property value.

False. A 1997 study by Rutgers University Center for Urban Policy Research found that properties listed on the national, state or local historic registers in New Jersey had a market value of $6 billion, of which $300 million could be attributed to the value-enhancing effects of historic designation. Yet, it remains a matter of dispute whether historic designation of individual buildings consistently enhances property values. Numerous studies have examined the impact of historic designation. Most conclude that designation has either a positive or neutral effect on property values. The results seem dependent upon whether the property is designated as an individual landmark or as part of a broader district, whether the property is residential or commercial, the level of regulation in the community and the limits on development in the community.

It's impossible to preserve historic elements of a building and still meet construction code.

False: The New Jersey Rehabilitation Subcode is a comprehensive set of technical requirements that enables the restoration and rehabilitation of historic buildings by allowing for flexibility in applying many aspects of the construction code.

If the town has a historic preservation ordinance, I can't paint my house the color that I want to.

False. A historic preservation ordinance can take many forms and is determined by what the community, through the council, considers appropriate. This may include having no regulations at all, to having an ordinance with combinations of the following:

  • The types of changes that the ordinance pertains to (for example, it is possible to regulate demolitions in one manner and changes to existing facades in another manner) and the process of applying to the preservation commission for review of such changes to a historic property
  • Whether an applicant may voluntarily provide to the preservation commission a description of the desired change to the designated historic property before the change can begin, or whether providing such a description is mandatory
  • The criteria and procedures used by the preservation commission to review the desired changes
  • Whether the applicant may voluntarily meet with the historic preservation commission to discuss the desired change if so requested by the preservation commission, or whether attendance by the applicant at such a meeting is mandatory
  • Whether the applicant may voluntarily comply with the design guidelines and the requirements set by the preservation commission, or whether compliance is mandatory

Therefore, while it is possible to have an ordinance that restricts the color that a designated historic property can be painted, such an ordinance would have to have support of the council and the community. Such restrictive ordinances are rare, and are typically found only in communities whose livelihood depends not only on the preservation of historic properties, but also their esthetic balance and upkeep.

Its less expensive to tear down an old building and put up a new one.

False. Since 1976, federal tax credits for qualified rehabilitation projects of income-producing historic properties have made rehabilitation a cost-effective alternative to new construction. Be sure to check for constantly changing Federal and State offerings on the rehabilitation of historic residential properties.

We've never had a problem before in Clinton, so there's no reason for the town to change things now.

False. An essential fact of historic preservation is that its absence is often the most compelling argument for its existence. After an important historic resource is lost, people inevitably question why it wasn't saved. This common dilemma shows why we must identify and protect resources before they are threatened.

Clinton has only fewer than 10 available residential building lots and a similar number of non-residential lots. It is an incredibly attractive place to live, with good schools, a thriving town center and a reasonable tax rate. It is only a matter of time until someone purchases a historic property for the sole purpose of tearing it down and building new on the site. Times are changing, and the strain of development is felt everywhere. Clinton must plan properly to protect its valuable historic resources.

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