New Jersey – On November 17, 2008, the lameduck Moorestown Town Council acquiesced to residents – a small but vocal group – opposed to the re-introduction of an Historic Preservation Ordinance in the township. Residents stated that the Ordinance was too far-reaching in overriding individual property owners’ rights, and should, if anything, be confined to demolition only of historic properties.
In the summer of 2008, a grassroots group calling themselves MPOP (Moorestown Property Owners) was formed by owners of some of the town’s historic homes in an effort to legally overturn a HPO that had been passed by the Democratic council in 2007. The original Ordinance was strongly advocated by councilman Jonathan Eron, Deputy Mayor Ann Segal, and Mayor Kevin Aberant. The lone Republican on council, Dan Roccato, had opposed the measure from its introduction.
The MPOP group, headed by Sandra and Richard Koory, owners of a gracious, elegant Victorian home on one of Moorestown’s most historically-significant streets, served as Directors of the group. With a membership number informally ranging from eight to forty members (not all of whom were active), the group pursued a lawsuit against the township in an effort to overturn the HPO. Judge Sweeney, now retired from the Burlington County Court system in New Jersey, agreed with the group’s contention that the HPO was illegally inducted into law. His official ruling stated that town council and its administrators had failed to formally notify the owners of the 455 properties that the Ordinance claimed were covered under the law. Council had indeed failed to notify property owners either by regular or certified mail, instead having posted notice of the Introduction and Reading of the Ordinance in two small community papers. Members of MPOP claim that there were, in their viewpoint, numerous problems with the Ordinance – excessive fines and penalties for its disregard, ambiguous language, standards that were virtually impossible with which to comply – and that Sweeney, having to choose only one irregularity in overturning the Ordinance, chose only to throw it out based on the procedural notification process.
In the short time span that the Ordinance was actually in effect – less than a year – town council had appointed a Historic Preservation Commission and appointed a council representative to that Commission. Meetings were held on a monthly basis at the township’s library. Committee members were handpicked by members of council, and included an art historian, a retired political science professor, and a developer currently constructing new homes and projects within Moorestown. None of the committee members possessed a degree or any background in Historic Preservation. Thus, council approved the hiring of a certified Historic Preservation consultant to meet with the Committee at its monthly meetings, at an approved fee of $700 per meeting. Since few of tghe committee members had served on municipal committees in the past, the consultant for the most part actually conducted the meetings procedurally. The committee’s work consisted of a member applying for a grant (which application was rejected due to insufficient and supporting documentation submitted with the application), and an ongoing review of the township’s Master Plan, which had been amended well over two decades ago to support a Historic Preservation Ordinance. It remains unclear what actual actions and recommendations were produced by the committee. The group did meet with the principals of a bank building, who wanted clearance to construct a historically-conforming building on the township’s Main Street. Committee made numerous suggestions and recommendations; however, the committee was in truth advisory, and had no binding powers over the actual decision to approve or reject the building in question. (The structure was approved by the township’s Planning and Zoning and Economic Advisory Committees, and was completed in August, 2008. While the structure is physically appealing and conforms to its neighboring historic structures, none of the recommendations of the Historic Preservation Committee were mandated.)
Moorestown was selected by Forbes Magazine for the calendar year 2005 as the “Best Town in America”. Much was made of its historic background and both residential and commercial historic properties. It is somewhat unique that this town of 20,000 residents at this time does not have any historic ordinance – demolition only, limited historic approvals, etc. – in place at all.
Those who strongly oppose any Historic Ordinance within the town claim that none is needed. Demolition of any property – including those of a historic designation – are subject first to approvals by the township’s Appearance Committee before a structure can be struck down. However, it remains unclear how strongly enforced this law actually is. The true rallying point for the reintroduction of the first – and second – Historic Preservation Ordinances arose from the demolition of a farmhouse located on a large tract of land which was purchased by resident Vernon Hill. (Hill remains a well-known figure in the Delaware Valley area, having founded Commerce Bank and several successful land acquisition and interior design firms. Hill was indicted by the Banking Commission on several questionable deals in which Commerce took part, and was removed as the President and CEO of Commerce Bank. One of these deals involved ‘sweetheart’ arrangements conducted between Commerce and Hill’s wife, Shirley, who owned a business that did interior design work for banks – all of which were Commerce Banks. Commerce Bank was sold to TDBank, a Canadian banking enterprise, several months ago, and Hill no longer has any involvement with Commerce Bank or its subsidiaries.)
The farmhouse which the Hill family purchased was built in the mid 1800’s. Without any prior permits or authorizations from the township, Hill demolished the building, replacing it with a lavish, sprawling mansion on the property, complete with a helicopter pad. The realization of the ‘after the fact’ demolition of a historic structure drew attention to the need for some sort of monitoring procedures, through a Historic Preservation Ordinance or other legal means, to prevent the future of the township’s current historic properties.