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Master Planning


Don't Forget to Protect
Historic Structures

Gerry Scharfenberger 
By Gerry Scharfenberger
Director, Office for Planning Advocacy,
New Jersey Department of State
Member, Middletown Township Committee

One of the many casualties of the economic downturn has been the preservation of historic properties. The pressure to redevelop blighted areas, the lack of funding for maintenance and repair, and the rising costs of labor and materials all combine to make historic preservation an increasingly difficult proposition. One of the ways that local governments can help is to include a Historic Preservation Element in their municipal master plans.

The following discussion will focus on three key questions that municipalities should consider prior to adopting a historic preservation element of the local master plan.

What is an effective Historic Preservation Element and what are the considerations in preparing one?
Prior to preparing a Historic Preservation Element for a municipal master plan, an essential first step is to create a Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) as permitted by the Municipal Land Use Law (MLUL). The HPC plays a crucial role in building the foundation for an effective historic master plan element with two key steps as laid out in the MLUL:

a. The HPC shall prepare a survey of historic sites pursuant to criteria identified in the survey report;

b. The HPC shall make recommendations to a planning board on the master plan historic preservation element, and on the implications for preservation of historic sites of any other master plan elements;

An effective historic master plan element will include a survey of historic sites, taken either on a municipal-wide basis or in specific areas. The historic survey is designed to identify why certain properties, manmade structures and natural objects have historical, archaeological, cultural, scenic or architectural significance to the public. If historic sites exhibit a reasonable degree of geographic continuity, the master plan can recommend the designation of a historic district, where one or more historic sites (and intermittent “non-historic” sites) can be included.


Historic Preservation

and Effective

Municipal Development

Do Not Have To Be

Mutually Exclusive


Broad Street Building residential houst
The common thread of the buildings above is that they all were rehabilitated by private developers with oversight by local historic preservation commissions created by the historic preservation element of the local master plan. They are examples of historic buildings that were not only saved, but adaptively reused and put back on the tax rolls. They are (clockwise from top) the Stout-Tucker House in Middletown, Monmouth County; the Red Bank Armory in Red Bank, Monmouth County; and the Broad Street Bank in Trenton, Mercer County

The planning board must formally incorporate the historic survey reports into the municipal master plan, and craft the land use element of the master plan to identify specific historic districts and/or sites. A governing body is then empowered to make a formal designation of historic districts and/or sites by ordinance.

There are several other aspects of the Historic Preservation Element that must be considered as part of the Master Plan. First and foremost, it must delineate the locations and criteria of significance for all historic sites. It also must determine the standards used for determining significance. Finally, it must also examine other components of the Master Plan to determine how they will affect the municipality’s historic resources.

What are the benefits to having a Historic Preservation Element?
There are numerous benefits to having a Historic Preservation Element. Adaptive reuse of historic structures fits well with the general direction of government to utilize existing structures, rather than building new ones. Reusing an existing structure through adaptive reuse, is very “green” in these days of environmental consciousness, since no energy will be expended on new brick, steel and other materials.

Historic preservation also fosters community spirit, cohesiveness and pride. Nothing is more demoralizing or raises the ire of citizens more than demolishing a historic structure that has been a part of the community for years. Finally, there is grant money available for the rehabilitation of historic structures. Beautifully maintained historic buildings help maintain and strengthen property values.

The Historic Preservation Element also provides the legal basis for detailed ordinances that regulate the development of privately owned land. It explains why specific sites or districts have historic resource value. Specific design standards can then be adopted by ordinance to ensure that modifications to buildings, structures and properties do not compromise the intrinsic historic value of sites and/or districts. Ordinance standards are also included to ensure historic resources are not demolished or removed without proper notification to a municipality, which typically has an opportunity to try and negotiate the preservation of the resource.

The Historic Preservation Element also provides legitimacy for the HPC and its other duties including:

  • Advising on the inclusion of historic sites in a municipal capital improvement program;
  • Advising the planning board and zoning board of adjustment on applications for development; and,
  • Providing written reports on the application of the zoning ordinance provisions concerning historic preservation.

Why is it necessary to have this planning tool in place in a municipality with historic assets?
Like any endangered species, historic properties have a tendency to diminish in numbers, either through neglect, demolition or extensive renovation. Historic properties need attentive planning and management to preserve them for current and future generations. Understandably, historic properties are also subject to the intricate pressures and issues facing modern society. Thus, at times, their preservation seems to run counter to the more immediate needs of affordable housing, economic development, job creation, education, and so on. However, the reality is that in many cases, the preservation of historic structures actually supports these initiatives.

Without a historic master plan element as the planning foundation, a municipality is unable to legitimately designate historic districts or sites by ordinance. Historic preservation ordinances typically regulate the use of private property based on historical, architectural, scenic, cultural or archaeological value to the public. Accordingly, these ordinances must have the master plan as their foundation in order to legitimately further the public purpose of historic preservation and to withstand a legal challenge. This is particularly essential in municipalities that incorporate detailed design standards (where either an administrative officer or a planning board is empowered by ordinance to deny permits based on HPC recommendations). Moreover, this planning foundation can provide an opportunity for a municipality to secure grant funding from public or private entities to preserve historic resources.

Preserving the Past Protects Our Future Aside from an association with the past, historic sites contribute enormously to many facets of the community including economic development, educational systems, regional culture, general welfare and quality of life.

Historic preservation and effective municipal development do not have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, including a Historic Preservation Element in a Municipal Master Plan will unite often disparate, conflicting interests toward a common goal for the future of a municipality. As stewards of our rich cultural heritage, it is imperative that government officials remain ever mindful of the fragility of the tangible remains of the past, while upholding their responsibility toward a sound planning vision for the future. Having a Historic Preservation Element as part of a local master plan provides a measure of protection at a time when the threats to historic resources are increasing. These threats include increases in population, land values and maintenance costs. We cannot afford to passively stand by and allow the physical remains of the past to fall victim to current economic and financial conditions. This kind of short-sightedness will deprive future generations of their irreplaceable cultural heritage.


First published in New Jersey Municipalities, Volume 89, Number 1, January 2012

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