HPC Attorney Michele Donato and Chairman Chris Fabricant at Wednesday night’s meeting. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)


hot topicThe Red Bank Historic Preservation Commission began a teardown this week.

The target: the 2018 borough ordinance that purportedly gave the advisory body “teeth” but has proven “very wanting,” in the words of one member.

Commission member Kristina Bonatakis and alternate member Paul Cagno. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)

“Very little of your ordinance complies with” the New Jersey Municipal Land Use Law, new commission Attorney Michele Donato told the six members in attendance at the HPC’s monthly meeting Wednesday night, with only a reporter in the audience. “So I recommend that we proceed with an entirely new ordinance.”

“Let’s start from scratch,” she said.

Donato walked the commission through a 38-page draft modeled on an ordinance she helped write for Cape May City about 30 years ago. Among its keys is exempting “ordinary maintenance and repair” from HPC review, she said, leaving approval decisions to the planning office.

That would “reward people who do the right thing,” she said.

Adoption of the proposed ordinance “would bring you into compliance” with the MLUL, she said. It also would “do so in a way that doesn’t strangle the regulated public.”

Among its powers, the commission is charged with issuing certificates-of-appropriateness for proposed exterior alterations to structures in the Washington Street Historic District and another that covers most of the downtown business area.

But since 2018, whether the commission had more bite than bark was repeatedly tested. The issue culminated in a recent showdown over 26 Wallace Street, a house built in the 1870s that had been targeted for demolition to create a parking lot. The HPC spared the property, which was later acquired by a couple who have embarked on a restoration. Clarification: the original version of this post mistakenly reported the house was built in the 1880s. Historical records, however, indicate that construction began in 1875 and was completed by 1878.

HPC Chairman Chris Fabricant said that in 2022, “there was an indication that the ordinance was not as tight as it might be,” without being more specific.

Afterward, Fabricant told redbankgreen that the effort is not to rewrite the existing ordinance but to create a new one.

“I haven’t heard anyone speak forcefully in support of that ordinance,” he said. “I’ve heard many voices speaking against that ordinance as a document that serves the community well.”

The existing ordinance has proven “very wanting,” said member Gary Saphire. “I think the new one will make things more clear.”

Among the draft provisions discussed Wednesday: the creation of clear design guidelines; whether to require that all commission members live in town; and whether to include trees and other landscaping under the HPC’s purview.

The guide “is a critical piece,” said Fabricant. “You want everybody to be operating from the same playbook.”

Donato cited guidelines written for Plainfield and the City of Cape May as models.

The commission agreed to ask the borough council for $10,500 to hire consultant to prepare the guidelines.

Alternate member Paul Cagno pressed for a residency requirement. Without one, he said, three of the HPC’s seven seats could potentially be taken by non-residents.

But Donato advised the commission to stick with the non-resident membership provision for “class A” members. Under state law, municipal historic preservation commissions must have at least one class A member, defined as “a person who is knowledgeable in building design and construction or architectural history and who may reside outside the municipality.”

Changing the provision could open the ordinance to legal challenge, Donato said. Maintaining it, she said, would enable the HPC to draw on experts who live nearby but not in town.

“There is a risk of not finding people,” said member Paul Sullivan.

Cagno also urged the commission to stay clear of trying to regulate removal of trees from properties in historic districts.

“We’ve got to be careful about neighbors, certain spiteful neighbors frankly, complaining when you take a tree down, or when you plant an arbor vitae or do something like that,” he said.

Donato said “magnificent” trees could be seen as “character-defining features” of a property, but that the commission was free to remove the provision.

“There is something to be said for trying to avoid having a 150-year-old oak tree in the front yard, just cut down without there being a process associated with that,” Fabricant said.

Member Kristina Bonatakis was tasked with reaching out the borough Shade Tree Committee for input.

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