Date: August 20, 2004
Byline: Joe Barron
Board tackles preservation ordinanceThe operative word here is "teeth."
As in: If Springfield Township is going to enact a historic preservation ordinance, that ordinance should have some teeth.
The township board of commissioners used the word repeatedly Aug. 9 in discussing the possibility of enacting an ordinance that would give them the power to deny demolition permits for historic buildings.
Under state law, townships apparently have the authority to deny demolition permits, although at the time the township planning commission began considering the ordinance in January, members believed the most the township could do was delay demolition for a suitable period of review.
The draft of the ordinance that the township planning commission submitted to the board of commissioners last spring provides for a 90-day waiting period in the event a developer applies for a permit to demolish a building more than 75 years old.
During the 90-day grace period, the developer would be required to appear before the planning commission to discuss the application and possible alternatives.
According to the draft, the planning commission could then recommend further delay for the board of commissioners "to adequately examine viable options to demolition as may have been presented by the township or other interested parties during the initial review period."
The draft does not include any provision for the permanent denial of a permit, however, and while the board of commissioners appeared interested in adopting such language at its Aug. 9 workshop meeting thus giving the ordinance some "teeth" commissioners appeared reluctant to apply that power to every building in the township more than 75 years old.
"It's a balancing act," Commissioner Tim Lawn said. "You can't have something too draconian."
The issue arose when Bob Gutowski, a member of the Springfield Planning Commission, appeared before the board of commissioners Aug. 9 requesting guidance on a revised draft of the ordinance. Unsure of how to proceed, the commissioners opted to submit the draft to the township solicitor for review.
The possibility of denying demolition permits was raised by Commissioner Kathleen Lunn of Flourtown, who sent the planning commission's draft to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in April.
After reviewing the ordinance, Michael Lefevre, chief of preservation planning and education outreach, replied to Lunn, saying while the delay of demolition was a step in the right direction, it would not ensure the preservation of historic properties.
"All an applicant for a demolition permit of a historic resource needs to do is simply wait out the 90-day period stipulated in the ordinance and then simply go ahead with the demolition," Lefevre wrote. "Municipalities in Pennsylvania can and have denied demolition permits, and all levels of the Pennsylvania Court System have affirmed this authority."
The township planning commission has labored on the ordinance since January and according to Gutowski, expected to submit a final draft to the board in May. Development of the ordinance appeared to stall, however, over the question of denying demolition permits.
Township commissioners said the power to deny a demolition permit should apply only to a limited number of historically important structures, which could be listed in the ordinance. Another possibility, they said, would be to establish a historic district overlay in specific areas of the township, such as Bethlehem Pike.
For older but less historic buildings, the 90-day cooling off period may be adequate and less invasive of property rights, the commissioners said.
"My predilection at this time would be some kind of two tier system," Lawn said.
The township commissioners said they would give the planning commission more specific directions after hearing from the township solicitor.