Metuchen Planning Board approves Historic Preservation Plan element to Master Plan

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Hester Poole House

METUCHEN – With a Historic Preservation Plan element in the borough’s masterplan, it could very well prevent what happened to the historic Hester Poole house on Rose Street last year.

“Everyone agreed it was a historic home,” said Robert Renaud, attorney for the Metuchen Planning Board. “Also, everyone agreed it had gotten to the point where frankly it was beyond preservation. The board, despite neighbors’ objections, granted a subdivision.”

Renaud said since part of the Historic Preservation Plan element is preservation, it could prevent historic homes from getting to the point of the former Hester Poole house.

In July 2020, the Planning Board approved three new homes to replace the historic Hester Poole house at 101 Rose St. The house was sometimes known as the Isaiah Rolfe House, constructed in 1850.

When a board hears an application involving variances, one of the things always considered is whether or not the variances impair the zoning of ordinances and the municipality’s masterplan, Renaud said.

The Metuchen Planning Board voted in favor of approving a Historic Preservation Plan element at a meeting on Oct. 21.

Borough Planner Chris Cosenza and Nancy Zerbe, chair of the borough’s Historic Preservation Committee, presented the element to the board.

“This is Metuchen’s first-ever historic preservation plan element,” Zerbe said.

Cosenza said there have been mentions of preservation in previous master plan documents; however, more in generic terms. He said the 1999 housing plan element did acknowledge a lot of housing stock in neighborhoods at least 50 years old and provided goals of ensuring new and infill housing is compatible with the neighborhood and demolition of structured sound dwellings is discouraged.

“But again nothing really specific related to built environment and historic structures whether individually or within a historic district,” he said.

Cosenza said the development of the plan included the compilation of a comprehensive list of historic and architectural uses in the borough. Through a grant, the borough hired a consultant to sift through past historic site survey material and update the list, which he said was a tremendous undertaking.

Zerbe said past survey material were compiled by volunteers of the borough’s Historic Preservation Committee. She said historic and architectural uses do not necessarily have to be a building.

The development of the plan also included finding standards used to assess all that’s required by municipal land use law and the understanding of legislation for programs and policies including how local policies relate to preservation.

Cosenza said the borough’s efforts of protecting Metuchen’s character is not without merit including land-use decisions to eliminate retail uses downtown in the D-1 zone, which he said has protected Main Street and continues to promote revitalization of the downtown area. Also efforts have been made to maintain areas of Middlesex Avenue to keep its residential character and prevent the area from becoming strip malls.

“Sometimes people forget there’s a state highway running through the middle of Metuchen,” he said.

And although there have been many positive merited efforts, the tearing down of a number of historic homes in recent years reminds the community “we could all do better,” Cosenza said.

Discussions about adding a historic element to the Master Plan and creating a historical preservation ordinance became heightened in March 2018 with the demolition of two 19th century homes on High Street and again in September 2018 when 59 Graham Ave., known as the David Graham Thomas home built circa 1850, was demolished.

More than 100 historic homes were demolished in a five-year period from 2013-18.

“The greatest threat of historic resources is the growing number of demolitions,” Cosenza said, adding the demotions have already impacted the radio section neighborhood of Clive Street to Plainfield Avenue.

Historic Preservation Process

Zerbe said the first step in any historic preservation process – on local, county and federal levels – is to assess whether or not resources are potentially significantly defined by established criteria – architecture, important individual, archaeology and historic patterns – for inclusion in the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places.

“Age alone does not make a resource significant,” she said, noting the criteria is broad. “It needs to have significant age, integrity and also a reason it is significant.”

The borough began with two homes on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places lists and now has more than 100 homes when the Middlesex Avenue-Woodwild Historic District was added to the lists in 2017.

The borough’s Historic Preservation Committee has identified three areas with concentrations of historic properties of potential individual or historic district significant in the borough. The areas include Clive Street to Plainfield Avenue, Woodbridge Avenue, Amboy Avenue and Main Street, and Tommy’s Pond, Lake Avenue and Rose Street.

The Historic Preservation Plan element will serve as a living document and set a guide for future planning, Cosenza said.

The goal and action plans of the plan include fostering a public appreciation that Metuchen’s historic resources significantly contribute to and define Metuchen’s character; continuing to identify and evaluate historic resources; developing measures to preserve Metuchen’s historic resources; encouraging new development that is compatible with and minimizes damage to Metuchen’s historic resources; and integrating preservation into municipal planning and developing municipal historic preservation programs including tax abatements and a historic preservation ordinance.

The borough is in the midst of creating a historic preservation ordinance with the help a consultant. The borough received a $15,000 New Jersey Historic Trust grant to hire the consultant.