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Retrospective: The Vote That Killed the Basking Ridge Historic District

Retrospective: As with all Mr. Local History retrospectives, we often update the post when we learn stories and are sent photos from our internet community. We will continue to grow this piece as information becomes available. If you have a comment or photo, feel free to post at the bottom of this page or drop us a note.

Mr. Local History Project

The Historic Village of Basking Ridge

One of a collection of photos gathered back in 1993 submitted with the Basking Ridge Historic District nomination to the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office.

All anyone has to do is drive down South Finley Avenue to the town green to recognize you’re in a historic village. From the picturesque churches, to the main street historic storefronts, you can’t help feel you’re in a Norman Rockwell painting. History has a way of creeping up on you and when you least expect it, you’re smack dab right in the middle of it. That’s what the Village of Basking Ridge feels like. So why isn’t the Village of Basking Ridge a state and nationally recognized historic district? It almost happened, but it never happened. Let’s take a look back at this story about history and politics.

A 1873 reproduction of the Beers rendering of the Village of Basking Ridge. Free maps like this are handed out at select Mr. Local History events. Click Here to get one.

Formally Recognizing a Historic District

New Jersey has made it relatively easy for a town to apply for and become recognized as a historic district. Obviously, the first thing you need to have is history. Certain districts have a feel, a special historic feel. The structures, the streetscape, the storefronts, and yes some historic events make a historic district worthy of a historic designation. But the real issue is not really the history as that happened by itself. The struggle comes with documenting the history: the paperwork, the research, and yes, the presentation all take time, money, and dedication.

The Mr. Local History Project has been giving tours of the historic Basking Ridge village for years. Event is typically held every April.

Typically these types of efforts are put forward by volunteers who recognize and have high regard for history. What many don’t recognize is that a historic district has nothing to do really with any local government agencies. You don’t need a Town Council or a Mayor or a historic preservation commission, or a zoning board to nominate an area as a historic district, but it doesn’t hurt to have their support. The only two things you need are history, and people willing to do the work.

Defining A Historic District

Determining the boundary of a historic district is complicated. Where should it start and end? The boundary is a critical test to understanding the district’s qualifications. Typically, a committee meets with the state and consultants to determine why an area deserves a historic district designation. After the narrative is developed, it’s more like a college thesis – you go out there and you prove it. You document your story with evidence. That’s exactly what happened in Basking Ridge.

After a long research period, The Historic District of Basking Ridge was defined. Source: LUCY database

What’s in a Historic District

The tale of Basking Ridge was no different from any other district nomination. The local historical society passed a motion to create a committee to embark on the process to nominate the village of Basking Ridge to the New Jersey state registry of historic places as an official historic district. The proposed district started at the Municipal Building as the southern end, down South Finley Avenue thru the business district of the village, then up both North Finley Avenue and North Maple Avenue to recognize historic older homes built just off the village.

Why Nominate a Historic District

There is very little a historic district receives other than the benefit of indicating”the historic district” before the area’s name. There are no zoning benefits, there are no zoning restrictions. Those are managed by the township’s governing bodies. The benefit comes with recognizing the area as historic. That’s really it.

2022 list of Historic Districts in Somerset County, NJ on the New Jersey State Historic Registry of Historic Places. Source: NJHPO

Most people say there has to be a benefit to being on the historic registry right?

Other than the bragging rights of being on the list, local historic organizations typically put together plaque programs, or historic tours and pamphlets recognizing the history within a historic district. There are no local, state, or federal restrictions placed on any historic district coming from the Department of the Interior or the State historic registry. NONE. Let me say it one more time……none.

There are more opportunities and bragging rights for being in a historic district. But this designation does NOT impose any ordinances against any property in the district. Those restrictions are typically handed out by some government historic preservation office or zoning ordinances, not a historic designation. Source: NJHPO

What Happened to the #baskingridgehistoricdistrict

We traveled back to 1993 to find out exactly what happened to the nomination process for the historic district nomination for the Basking Ridge village. What we found actually made us scratch our heads in disbelief. What started out as a celebration to recognize history turned neighbor against neighbor. You see, you can do all the work to prepare the narrative and paperwork to nominate a historic district, but you also need a vote of confidence from those in the district to approve the nomination. The state agency sent a representative to a Basking Ridge Township Committee meeting to formally document the event, have public discussion, and ensure that a vote is made to approve the designation.

  • 125 pages of materials accompanied the submission
  • 159 properties analyzed
  • 2 historically recognized structures on State and National Historic Registers (Brick Academy and Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church)
  • 18 map reference pages
  • 53 photos (structures and streetscapes)
  • Preparer: Janet Foster, Acroterian Historic Preservation Consultants, Madison, NJ

With over a hundred historic district nominations, only two in New Jersey have failed to gain a majority vote to approve the nomination. Basking Ridge was one of them despite all of the work, preparation and money that went into the nomination.

The final determination to the historic district nomination would be the vote. Given all the work and effort that was done back in 1993 to nominate the Basking Ridge Historic District, the local historical society brought forward a state representative to attend a TC meeting to share background and the procedures necessary to get the nomination over the finish line. Years of work went into the proposal.

Not exactly, contends the opposing group, which includes three members of the Township Committee. They say the designation would mean “Big Brotherism,” too much regulation and loss of home rule.

Opposition to the vote included three township committee members. Source: New York Times

Voted members of our local government were advised to stay away from this discussion as they’ve remembered the hostility of those days when local realtors basically ganged up on anyone they could and spearheaded a misinformation campaign that proved effective. With emotions running high on both sides after public meetings, notices and letters, the Township Committee voted 3 to 2 in August to protest the nomination on the grounds that the municipality owns 6 of the 200 buildings in the district and qualifies as a property owner.

The final vote was 48% for the district nomination, and 52% against. Mayor Robert Haycock and Thomas Daggett, a Committeeman, both voted for the Basking Ridge HIstoric District nomination. Committee members Diana Boquist and Jerome Kienlen voted against. The Basking Ridge Historic District never passed.

Donald N. Esposito, president of Somerset County’s Cultural and Heritage Commission, said he believed that the proposed district is consistent with a cultural resource survey that is an element of the county’s master plan as well as Bernards Township’s master plan. “The State and National Register does not place restrictions on private undertakings as long as public funds are not involved. The purpose and intent of the designation is to recognize historic areas and give them a certain profile of respect. It’s a protection, not a restriction.”

August 24, 1993 – The campaign to kill the historic nomination for Basking Ridge Village. Source: Courier News.

“Both documents call for a National Register district in this area. It’s Just a recognition.

Donald N. Esposito, president of Somerset County’s Cultural and Heritage Commission

Will There Ever be a Basking Ridge Village Historic District?

A plaque was designed hoping that the effort to approve the Basking Ridge Historic District would be revived. A listing on either historic register entitles the community to put up a sign reading, “You Are Entering the Historic District of Basking Ridge.”

The million dollar question is “Will there ever be a Basking Ridge Village Historic District” on the New Jersey State and National Registers of Historic Places? The Mr. Local History Project started looking into the possibility by reaching out to the state preservation offices and discussing with a few key local officials. The simple answer is sure, it could, but it’d need a bunch of money and a serious commitment from those within whatever the district boundary would be, and how willing the volunteers would be to take on the task.

Given today’s technology, the process might not be that difficult. The challenge lies in two areas; cataloging all the homes that have changed since 1993 within the proposed district. But the real challenge is misinformation. It doesn’t take much on social media to destroy good intentions.

Brooks Betz, Bernards Township official historian and Trustee on the non-profit mr. local history Project.
Local resident and history advocate Bea Dreesen summed in up in a Letter to the Editor. Source: Courier News – September 1993. The historical society’s acting president, Bea Dreesen said, “This historic designation contains positively no restrictions for the homeowner, now or in the future.”

Referenced Stories

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