Take care with historic designations

I n a June 26 article, the Sentinel reported that the Metuchen Historic Preservation Committee was contemplating the designation of historic areas in the borough. I hope the committee will keep in mind the financial impact this could have on individual local property owners that may be included in such areas.

Some time back — the 1980s, I think — a similar endeavor was launched. I remember one case in particular. I am not now in touch with the former homeowners and they may not want to bring this up again anyway at this late date, so I mention no names.

A large house with nearly an acre of land was designated a “historic house.” The reason escapes my memory now. It was built in the 1920s, and as far as I know, nothing “historic” had ever happened there. There are undistinguished people like me still living today who were born in the 1920s and could, I suppose, be designated “historic persons.”

Very close to the house was a very large and ancient tree, which was causing the owners some alarm. Every time the branches creaked in a high wind, they would go out to see if anything calamitous was coming down on their roof. This tree too was declared a “historic tree” — presumably because of its humongous size and venerable age. Anyway, once it became “historic,” it could not be cut down. So they had to live with it.

The years had passed, generations aged, and the time had come to sell. A buyer offered $500,000. The trouble was that he wanted to demolish the house and build an apartment complex on the one-acre plot. You cannot demolish a “historic house.” So the deal fell through. Eventually the owners found a buyer who was willing to take on the house “as is.” They sold it to him for $300,000.

It seems to me that the seller lost $200,000 as a direct result of the “historic house” designation, which was imposed upon him without anyone asking for his consent. It was money the family needed. The father was in a nursing home, and the missing $200,000 would have paid for several years of care.

I would ask now in 2013: Are the historical district selectors ready to assume financial responsibility for any financial losses their decisions may cause? Are the impacted property owners going to be included in the designated historical districts even if they do not want to be included? Or will they be free to opt out of it?

Your article says that homeowners in the historic districts will be allowed to make alterations to their buildings unless the municipal authorities forbid it. But presumably, the historical preservation spokesmen will lobby in Borough Hall against such alterations, and certainly against any demolition.

It is a pity indeed to lose a historical landmark. But are those who want to preserve them willing to pay for them and maintain them? It seems an injustice to impose the entirety of any financial loss, plus custodial care, onto the owner of a property that has suddenly become “historical” ex post facto after he bought it — unless, of course, he explicitly and voluntarily agrees to the historical designation. David Smyth Metuchen