Proposed Historic Preservation Ordinance

Update- March 1, 2008
The Township Board of Supervisors has proposed the consideration of an ordinance to regulate the proposed demolition of any Historic Resource in the Township. This ordinance would create an historic commission, identify the Historic Resources in the Township, and provide a process for considering any proposed demolition of any Historic Resource. The proposed ordinance would not in any way regulate any use or any alterations to a Historic Resource. You can review the December 2007 draft of the proposed ordinance here:

2007-Proposed Newtown Historic Ordinance (PDF)

Preservation ordinances are neither new nor cutting edge. The concept was approved by the United States Supreme Court in its landmark 1978 decision upholding the preservation of New York’s Grand Central Station, and in various subsequent decisions of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania legislature has authorized local communities to adopt preservation protection if they wish. For a community interested in planning for growth, it is a necessary tool in the planner’s toolbox. In Delaware County, at last count at least 22 communities have adopted some form of preservation. Newtown is not on the cutting edge here, but far back in the pack. A demolition ordinance such as this one primarily affects the builder or developer who wishes to tear down an existing structure in order to make way for a new building. It generally does not affect the Historic Resource owners who consider themselves to be thoughtful stewards of an important part of the history of Newtown Township. However, opposition mainly arises out of simple fear of the unknown, spread by scare tactics that paint any preservation as an insidious plot by government to invade the rights of homeowners. The extensive adoption of preservation in the state and in the country is testament to the real value of preservation for communities who embrace a vision – of both the past and the future. A thoughtful reading of the proposed ordinance goes a long way to alleviating any concerns that a landowner may have. We advise that each interested party actually read the document, and then participate in the public debate as an informed party.
Why does Newtown Township need a historic preservation ordinance?

Newtown Township, though founded in 1682, was a mostly rural community up until the end of World War II. After the war, Newtown and other suburban townships began to grow as returning veterans married and moved to the new homes being constructed throughout the suburbs. From the 1950’s through the 1980’s, the pace of growth was manageable. The basic road system was capable of handling the new traffic; the schools constructed in the 1950’s generally accommodated the increased enrollment; the areas set aside for Little League fields and public parks were sufficient to grow and accommodate to the needs of the population. The row of retail stores along West Chester Pike accommodated the basic needs of the residents, and a relatively short drive could take them to the area malls for a wider variety of shopping. The existing sewage system expanded to accommodate those who built within its range, but many areas of the Township continued to have on-lot sewage disposal systems, such as septic tanks. Police, fire protection and ambulance services could be provided efficiently with a combination of full time professionals and volunteer services. And there was still open space in the community. No one needed to knock down an existing home to build a much bigger new one, as there was plenty of undeveloped land on which new homes could be built. People who wanted a new home could simply buy a new home. People who enjoyed the ambience and the challenges of living in an old home could find a choice of historic old houses in Newtown. There was room in the Township to accommodate a variety of homes, new and old.

The economic prosperity that followed the end of the Cold War and continued through the 1990’s upset the balance that had existed in the Township, and indeed throughout suburban and rural landscapes across the country. People could afford new homes and larger homes, and builders responded to that demand by building larger homes. Newtown Township experienced a tremendous increase in building permit applications during this time. New homes and new neighborhoods were constructed. The remaining open and unimproved space was reduced. The economic boom continues to this day, and the remaining land has skyrocketed in value. Old farms with lots of acreage turned into gold during this time. The increase in real estate taxes needed to provide increased services also meant that it became much more costly to keep those old farms intact. The demand for unimproved land for new construction, and the costs of preserving the farm land intact, led to a the sales of many of the old farms in the Township to developers. This put the existing old farms and out buildings – farmhouses, barns, spring houses, carriage sheds – at risk in the construction process. Old homes and barns were torn down to make way for new homes. One of the unintended consequences of this boom in land values was the concept of “teardowns”: existing older homes built on larger parcels of land that can be demolished to make way for the construction of one or more new homes, the “McMansion” phenomenon. In each case, new construction required that the existing structures be demolished. In the 1990’s, Newtown began to experience the demolition of its old homes, barns and other structures that had been built one hundred or more years ago. Long time residents were alarmed by the loss of these old buildings, and the threat posed by continued development on other historic homes and structures, and brought their concerns to the attention of the Township supervisors.

In 1999, the Newtown Township supervisors requested the Newtown Square Historical Preservation Society to prepare a proposed Historic Preservation Ordinance as part of the review and revision of Newtown Township’s comprehensive long range plan. The goals of a township’s comprehensive plan are to take stock of where we are as a community, what resources we have, what our needs are likely to be in the future, and how we should plan for growth in a way that preserves the features of our community that attracted us to live here in the first place.

The Society appointed a committee of five people (including two lawyers, and several long time Newtown residents) to research and prepare the proposed ordinance. The committee prepared an inventory of historic buildings and resources in the Township, using the Delaware County historical survey done in the 1980’s as a guide and starting point. Over the course of several years, the committee reviewed the many similar historic preservation ordinances throughout the state and throughout the country and the model ordinance of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, and consulted on the various drafts of the proposed Newtown ordinance at length with the Township’s solicitors. The final draft of the ordinance was reviewed and recommended by the Delaware County Planning Commission, and the Newtown Township Planning Commission, and presented for approval to the Newtown Township supervisors in Fall of 2003.

However, the draft ordinance ran afoul of election year politics. The proposed ordinance was tabled by the Newtown Township supervisors at a meeting in Fall of 2003; and has been left to languish since that time. While state law specifically permits townships to adopt preservation ordinances to protect their historic resources, as of this writing (January, 2007), Newtown Township has no ordinance in place, and therefore no tools with which to oppose any attempts to demolish any of the historic resources of the Township.

If this lack of planning and protection for the historic resources of Newtown Township is of concern to you, we would welcome you as a member of the Society. We would be glad to have you work with us, with the owners of the historic resources, and your elected public officials to adopt a historic preservation ordinance that controls demolition, whether outright or by neglect, and that puts in place a process for the community to have input before its historic resources are demolished or “altered” out of existence. Please take the time to read the ordinance summary and the proposed ordinance itself. While it is a legal document containing about thirty pages of text, we have avoided the legal jargon whenever possible, and have made it as user friendly as a township ordinance can be. We have not tried to reduce the size of the document simply to claim that it is “short”; we are trusting to the intelligence and common sense of thoughtful Newtown residents, who are all eminently capable of reading a thirty page document that seeks to preserve their heritage.

Doug Humes (January 2007)