Dear Council Members:
The Jersey City Planning Board recently approved revisions to the Historic Plan Element of Jersey City’s Master Plan that calls for aggressive expansion of historic districting throughout the city. Sparrow Hill (Heights) and Bergen Hill (Ward F) – where historic designation was soundly rejected by the local community in the early 1990s – are specifically targeted. It is time for the city council to reexamine the entire process from end-to-end.
None of you were sitting council members the last time historic districting was up for debate. The ordinances are deficient in many respects and the rules and regulations were designed for specific neighborhoods with specific characteristics, not necessarily prevalent in other areas of the city.
There is no local ordinance governing the nominating process for a historic district – nothing that stipulates how the community is notified or what level of community support is necessary and how that support is measured. In fact, the newly revised Historic Plan Element removes any requirement for owner consent whatsoever! It never occurred to me that an unelected Board wielded that kind of authority.
The Council needs to look at how district maps are drawn, who influences those maps and what type of housing stock they include. The proposed West Bergen-East Lincoln Park district, for instance, is based on studies that are decades old and, in some cases, no longer relevant.
The Historic Preservation Commission’s Rules & Regulations are not only onerous and burdensome but they are also vague and ambiguous, leaving the door open to arbitrary and capricious oversight and enforcement.
Under the current historic districting environment, and contrary to what the revised and recently approved Historic Plan Element says, there are no federal, state or local grants or tax benefits available to assist property owners with the increased cost of compliance. This may not be an issue in the downtown districts but it will significantly impact homeowners in less affluent areas of the city. Low to moderate income homeowners should be incentivized to maintain the historic character of their homes – not penalized for being unable to do so.
Neighborhood associations are, generally, a good means for communities and local officials to exchange ideas and get things done. This works well for public safety meetings, streetscapes, bike lanes, installing speed bumps or having them removed as the case may be. However, the actions of a neighborhood association should never, ever cross the threshold of one’s property without express consent. That is what we have here today – a vocal minority pushing through an ordinance that does not have the necessary support of stakeholders. When property rights are at stake a simple majority vote by council members should not be the deciding factor. A two-thirds majority should be required or, better yet, a two-thirds majority of property owner approval before the nomination process begins!
The onus for protecting or accelerating market values for speculative real estate investors should not fall on the backs of long-term homeowners. There are better, less intrusive alternatives than historic districting to safeguard communities from inappropriate development. I urge the council at this moment in time to use the tools at its disposal in devising a solution that is amenable to all property owners.
Lifelong Bergen Avenue homeowner