Riverton gets demolition protections!

Congratulations, Historic Riverton! Our town now has the same abilities to stop teardowns of salvageable historic buildings that many other beautiful, historic towns in New Jersey enjoy.

Eight months after the heartbreak of losing the 1901 Groves Mansion at 411 Lippincott (and then the charming Richardson house at 402 Midway just a month ago), Borough Council voted unanimously to establish the necessary Historic Preservation Commission at a special meeting on October 11, 2023 at the Riverton School gym. The Mayor also expressed her strong support.

The new ordinance takes effect immediately.

Read it here: https://riverton-nj.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/O-2023-05A-Final-HPC.pdf

What does the ordinance do?

It established a five-member Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) as an equal body to the Planning Board, replacing the Architectural Review Committee. Its area of influence is Riverton’s Historic District. (See the map on the last page of the ordinance.)

The new HPC has jurisdiction to review applications for full or partial demolition within the Historic District, with the ability to approve or deny – or to approve it with specific conditions. All demolition applications will be heard in a full public hearing, almost exactly like any variance hearing, with full legal notice to all property owners within 200 feet.

Demolition decisions by the HPC are final, although the applicant naturally has the right to appeal.

For now, projects not involving demolition will not be regulated, continuing the same non-binding helpful consulting and advisory services for homeowners that the former Architectural Review Committee provided. Such services include helping homeowners find appropriate windows, siding, materials, contractors, architects, etc.

While there is strong support among the public for making review of major changes binding in the Historic District, exactly how that might work will be a future chapter of this saga. No one wants the HPC to be an intrusive bureaucracy like some Home Owners Associations but then again none of us wants their neighbor to strip off a Victorian facade and replace it with glass brick.

What it does NOT do is regulate interiors or colors.

How does the HPC affect me?

Unless you are planning to demolish all or part of your house, nothing has changed.

BUT … you can now rest easier knowing that your neighbor will have a much harder time demolishing their historic house, which would reduce the value of yours.

How did Riverton’s new HPC come about?

For 25 years, Rivertonians thought our historic homes were protected from demolition. Many of us invested lovingly in restoring our own homes on the assumption that our historic surroundings would be defended. Our award-winning 1998 Master Plan made this the Borough’s clear public policy, to “preserve and enhance” our historic character, as it stated repeatedly.

But in late 2021 a developer applied to the Planning Board to demolish the 1901 Groves Mansion at 411 Lippincott Avenue, intending to subdivide the gracious lot and build three new houses on one of Riverton’s finest historic blocks. The Planning Board turned them down after several closely-followed public hearings.

The 1901 Frederick Stanley Groves mansion at 411 Lippincott Avenue. Groves was president of the Baltimore and Philadelphia Steamboat Company.

But the developer promptly instituted an expensive lawsuit against the Borough and the Planning Board, contending, among other things, that the Planning Board didn’t have jurisdiction.

Superior Court heard the developer’s suit one year later on January 25, 2023. Judge Jeanne Covert ruled that Riverton’s policy of preserving its historic appearance was perfectly permissible under state law. However . . . she ruled that the only legal way to implement that is for Riverton to have an HPC properly authorized to hear and rule on demolition applications … and we did not.

Therefore, the developer was allowed to destroy the mansion (which he did a week later) and our existing demolition ordinance was useless.

The Groves Mansion being destroyed.

March 13, 2023

Riverton was left defenseless against the teardown epidemic that continues to sweep New Jersey. At that point, any developer could walk into Borough Hall and get a demolition permit over the counter for any historic structure, no approvals needed!

Your Historical Society of Riverton (a 50-year-old non-profit volunteer group not affiliated with the Borough government) stepped up.

The HSR Board recognized that a broad consensus effort was needed that included as many constituencies of the town as possible – and we needed to move fast before developers started bulldozing irreplaceable homes.

HSR convened an ad hoc group of equal members, who would all be resident property owners. Most were asked to represent constituencies: apartment owners, commercial owners, insurance, the Porch Club, the fire company, a realtor, the Mayor, the President of Borough Council, the chair of the Planning Board, the Borough Historian, HSR. Three residents who are professionals with extensive experience in the preservation and planning fields were also asked to participate.

Four members, Planning Board Vice Chair Kerry Brandt, Mayor Suzanne Cairns Wells, HSR Board member John Laverty, and Borough Historian Roger Prichard spent a Saturday attending a valuable statewide workshop sponsored by Rutgers and the New Jersey Historic Trust specifically focused on setting up HPCs properly and how to run them fairly, effectively, and efficiently.

What came to be informally called the “Riverton Historic Preservation Roundtable” held four in-person meetings in Borough Hall and communicated extensively by email. Members literally all sat around a big circle so they could all see and hear each other clearly. The group functioned well. Everyone was respectful of each other, listened and learned.

The group agreed unanimously that its immediate goal should be “no more teardowns”.

The Roundtable recognized that there may be exceptions, situations in which the minimum cost to make a historic building habitable would be more than the building would ultimately be worth. However, most of the members have been involved in successful preservation projects which nay-sayers claimed would certainly fail – and yet they found ways to preserve and succeed economically.

While the Roundtable was working to bring new defenses to Riverton, the same developer destroyed the c. 1905 home of the Richardson family at 402 Midway to fit in three new houses. Without an HPC, Riverton had no way to protect our history.

The Roundtable presented a “Concept Document” to Borough Council on July 18, 2023, which the Council approved unanimously. They recommended that Council not reinvent the wheel, rather adapt an existing, proven ordinance from one of the towns the Judge had mentioned.

Subsequently, the Governing Body asked the Roundtable to act on their behalf to adapt the best-organized of those ordinances into a Riverton-specific ordinance, including clarifications to make it easier to administer by volunteer public officials, as suggested by the Borough Solicitor and also found in other towns.

This ordinance was introduced for first reading on September 19, 2023 at which time it became public. This HSR website immediately shared the draft with readers.

The Planning Board also reviewed this ordinance and supplied well-considered modifications.

This is the ordinance which Council passed unanimously this week, and you can read it here.

At that hearing in the Riverton School gym, everyone who spoke expressed their support: both the Governing Body and every member of the public present. It was very gratifying.

At the conclusion of the vote, the public gave our officials an extended round of heartfelt applause.

What happens next?

Now any application for a demolition in the Historic District will come up against these tough standards just like they would in Cape May, Princeton, Merchantville, Plainfield, Hopewell, etc.

To get the HPC operational, the Mayor must appoint its five members and two alternates. Evidently a fair amount of paperwork is needed, including arranging for a budget, though its expenses are anticipated to be very small. It is hoped that it can hit the ground running as soon as the new Borough year reorganizations start in January.

None of this can bring back either the Groves Mansion or the Richardsons’ house. But those losses have shocked many of us into realizing how precious AND FRAGILE Riverton’s historic appearance is. Losing any of it harms every one of us in this most unusual community.

Many thanks to the Mayor and Council for their support this year and to all the members of the Roundtable. It’s a wonderful example of people setting aside personalities and working together for a common goal – unusual in our world today.

The Historical Society of Riverton is a 501(c)3 charitable educational organization founded in 1970 to bring together people interested in history, especially the history of the Borough of Riverton, New Jersey.

It’s easy to join us. Dues are very affordable and an active membership amplifies our voice in the community. Larger donations leverage strong volunteerism to make many of our more significant educational and outreach efforts happen. Please click here to help!

Tell us what you like (or what you don’t!) and what you’d like to see more of. Please leave comments below.

Thank you and please spread the word about Historic Riverton, Everyone’s Home Town.

Published by

Roger Prichard

Roger is a board member of the Historical Society of Riverton, the Borough Historian, and the researcher and author of most of HSR's historical interpretive markers.

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