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Historic buildings, like farmland, should be preserved

Reading Eagle
Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012

By Thomas Hylton

The demolition of a pristine 1816 home along Route 222 in Maxatawny Township last summer has renewed interest in historic preservation ordinances.  Last month, state Sen. Judy Schwank organized a roundtable discussion to encourage the protection of Berks County’s historic structures. 

“Time and again, I’ve seen homes, churches and other buildings of historical importance being demolished,” she said.  “Slowly but surely Berks County is beginning to lose its cultural identity.”  She’s right, but the loss of historic resources is not inevitable.  County municipalities should begin safeguarding their architectural heritage.

Berks is justifiably proud of having one of the finest farmland preservation programs in the nation.  The county has spent $136 million over two decades to preserve 65,000 acres of farmland with conservation easements.  Berks recognizes the importance of protecting open land not only for its agricultural value, but because of its aesthetic, environmental, and cultural value.  The county’s scenic landscapes enhance everyone’s quality of life and increase property values.

Likewise, historic structures enhance the daily experience of everyone who lives and works around them.  They showcase the county’s rich past and some of its finest craftsmanship.  In a fast-changing world, historic architecture gives us a sense of permanence and identity.

Historic preservation ordinances need not be any more onerous than any other form of zoning.  Conservation districts, such as the one Reading recently created to protect its College Heights and Hampden Heights neighborhoods, usually address just two areas: new buildings and additions visible from the street, to ensure they are compatible with surrounding architecture; and the prevention of needless demolition.

Another route to preserve historic buildings is a landmarks law. Bethlehem has been working on a landmarks law in recent months to protect significant individual buildings that are located outside the city’s two historic districts.

The Berks County Planning Commission has formally identified about 4,000 historic properties in the county, which makes it far easier for municipalities to adopt ordinances protecting them. 

Pottstown Borough, where I live, recently saved an 1807 stone farmhouse from demolition thanks to its location in a conservation district.  Before any historic building in the district can be demolished, the property owner must demonstrate to the satisfaction of borough council that no feasible use for the structure exists.

The pristine farmhouse, an outstanding example of American Federal-style architecture, had been vacant for about 15 years.  In 2009, a developer proposed to demolish the house for an assisted living facility.  However, he was unable to demonstrate the house could not be restored for residential or commercial use, and council denied the request.

Earlier this year, another developer bought the property and wanted to demolish the farmhouse because he assumed it would be too expensive to restore.  But after council tabled his request, he allowed a historic preservation architect to evaluate the building.  The architect reported the house not only retained its original floors, woodwork, staircases, and mantels, it was in excellent condition and required few if any structural repairs.

The house was then sold to Boyertown businessman Ricky Watt, who plans to restore it as a single family home.  Watt said he felt fortunate to find a house as distinctive as those in the famed Oley Valley, but less expensive because few people knew it existed.

Laymen often assume historic structures are too costly or impractical to restore and reuse.  But they are usually quite sturdy and adaptable – that’s how they got to be old in the first place.  A conservation or landmark ordinance can protect these buildings by requiring the property owner to demonstrate it is not economically feasible to keep them. 

Historic buildings are like agricultural lands – they aren’t making any more of them.  Fortunately, few historic buildings require conservation easements.  A simple ordinance will serve the interests of current property owners and future generations.    




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