Bucks County Herald

Springfield loses four from historic commission

BARRIE-JOHN MURPHY

Springfield Township’s Historic Commission will be a much smaller commission following the sudden resignation of four of its seven members.

Rose Strong, Karen Freeh, Joanne Graziano and Patrick Bowersock all quit last month following disagreements about the commission’s role and responsibilities, one of which would have been to draft historic resource regulations. Strong and Freeh cited their increased responsibilities in their resignation letters. Freeh, a member of the body since 2000, added that she wanted to spend more time with her family. Graziano expressed gratitude for serving the township but deferred to Strong in her resignation letter, and Bowersock declined to comment on the matter when contacted.

Reacting to the surprise exodus, township Manager Mike Brown said last week that members were “missing a golden opportunity to shape public policy. ... Finding the right mix for a community isn’t easy, and these members apparently decided the work was too strenuous. This township runs on volunteer labor, and the key word there is labor.”

The body, tasked with surveying sites of historic significance, can make recommendations to the zoning officer but lacks enforcement power.

In an e-mail, Strong elaborated on her painful decision to leave a position she held since 2005. She said members had been given the added responsibility of reviewing demolition permit applications; in particular, one for a partial log home thought to have been built in the early 1700s, making it, according to Strong, possibly one of the first properties built in the township.

She said members determined the home could not be torn down because it was in the Historic Overlay District and of immense historic significance. Therefore, she said, it could not be torn down, according to either the township’s more recent or older zoning regulations.

But at a September meeting, much to Strong’s dismay, some board members wanted to give the property owners some leeway despite voting for the protection of the most historic, or Rank 1 properties, under the zoning regulations. In the end, the owners opted not to tear down the house, but Strong says the whole episode was dispiriting.

“The commission doesn’t mind being tasked with doing a bit more based on the zoning regulations, but for me, to have the board not back us up makes me feel unappreciated. What do they need a HC (Historic Commission) for, really? If they’re going to appoint us as volunteers in an advisory capacity and then go against what we recommend or advise, why would we stay and become frustrated?”

However, Supervisors Chairman Dave Long challenged Strong’s conclusions. “As I can tell, any recommendation which has been brought before the board has been accepted up to this point. For the 300-year-old structure, we actually did back it up, as no motion to overturn the zoning officer’s decision was made.” As zoning officer, Brown added there had not been any case where he made a decision that was in conflict with the commission’s recommendation.

Long said the current and previous historic overlay ordinance is “in a state of flux” as the township moves through the codification process, and said Brown is entitled to choose which one to follow depending on the circumstances of the issue.

The supervisors chairman agreed that the township should protect historic sites that serve a purpose but questioned how far the township should go. “I’m not sure I am in agreement with forcing landowners or property owners to maintain the structure at their expense to serve some township purpose other than to preserve historic structures which are not open to the public, cannot be seen from the road, and the landowner has no use for. There is a balance for all of this which I do not believe is present at the current time.”

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