Members of Plainfield’s Van Wyck Brooks Historic District are celebrating their victory in a zoning case with broad implications for historic preservation in New Jersey.
The win came on Thursday, July 26, after a seven-year struggle, when Union County Superior Court Judge Walter Barisonek rendered his decision in a lawsuit filed by the Historic District and four of its residents. The case involved a 2005 decision by the Plainfield Zoning Board to allow CPR Holdings, Inc., a for-profit corporation, to increase the size of their Abbott Manor Nursing Home on Central Avenue requiring variances which would have had detrimental effects on the Historic District and would have undermined Plainfield’s Master Plan and Zoning Ordinance. In 2002, the Board turned down a similar application filed by CPR Holdings in 2000, and Judge Barisonek’s decision effectively repeals their 2005 approval and reinstates the 2002 denial.
“We have never opposed the presence of the nursing home in the Historic District,” says district association president Gerry Heydt. “Our concern was the overwhelming size of the proposed addition, which was incompatible with surrounding structures and the Historic District as a whole. We’re thrilled that the City’s preservation efforts were recognized as a valid issue in the Judge’s decision.”
Attorney William H. Michelson, a resident of another Plainfield historic district, points out that in order to appeal the Zoning Board’s 2005 decision, the lawsuit had to be filed against both CPR Holdings and the Plainfield Zoning Board. “Neither the City nor the Zoning Board members caused the problem in this case,” he says. “The problem was the threat of a Federal lawsuit.”
CPR Holdings had contested the Board’s 2002 decision in Federal Court, claiming that Plainfield was “discriminating against the handicapped” under the Federal Fair Housing Act, and it was that lawsuit which resulted in the Zoning Board’s reconsideration of CPR’s application. Judge Barisonek found CPR’s claim without merit, since nursing homes are not prohibited in Plainfield. He emphasized, however, that the City’s Zoning Ordinance protects the integrity of historic districts from incursion by incompatible structures such as the one CPR Holdings proposed.
“This may seem like a relatively minor case about a single historic district,” says Dottie Gutenkauf, a Van Wyck Brooks Historic District resident and one of the plaintiffs, “but it’s much more than that. In addition to its emphasis on the importance of historic preservation, it shows that a group of citizens can pursue a legitimate issue and win, and that persistence and preparation pay off.” Retired attorney Rowand Clark, another plaintiff, agreed, saying, “This shows the substantial contribution the interested parties made in upholding the integrity of the Plainfield Master Plan and Zoning Ordinance.”
One key element in the victory was a scale model prepared by plaintiff Arne Aakre. Entered as an exhibit in the Zoning Board hearings and again in the courtroom, it showed clearly the impact of CPR Holdings’ proposed expansion of their facility on the surrounding area. “The structure would have enclosed two sides of our home,” says plaintiff Kenneth Philogene, “and would also have had a devastating impact on the Episcopal Rectory, a beautiful historic building.”
“We were fortunate,” Heydt adds, “to have been represented by our attorney, Bill Michelson. His expertise in planning, historic preservation, and land use was exactly what our Historic District needed to proceed with this case—and he did a great job!”
The Van Wyck Brooks Historic District was recognized by the City of Plainfield in 1982 and entered on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. It contains some of Plainfield’s most beautiful homes, many of which have been lovingly restored, and has served as a magnet in the city’s revitalization. It is the largest of Plainfield’s six residential historic districts, and the only one on the city’s west side.
CONTACT: Gerry Heydt (908-756-5036) or Dottie Gutenkauf (908-668-1149)