Meeting Minutes

Establishing a

West Ward Conservation District

October 30, 2019

 

A meeting to begin discussing specific regulations for a Conservation District in Easton’s West Ward neighborhood was held at the Easton Area Community Center on Wednesday, October 30, 2019. Eleven people were present.

The meeting began at 7:30 pm. Discussion was as follows:

Paul Felder reviewed the results of the previous West Ward Conservation District meeting (September 5, 2019) along with background information that was provided at that meeting. (Slides 1-14) He noted that the conservation district in Pottstown, PA appears to be the most comprehensive such ordinance in the state. The format of tonight’s meeting will be to have a group discussion of the Pottstown ordinance on a clause-by-clause basis, to begin developing recommendations as to their appropriateness as-is or with modifications for a West Ward ordinance.

The discussions were led by planner and architectural historian Tom Jones, a West Ward resident. (Note: due to repetitions in Pottstown’s ordinance, the discussion did not always follow the topics in the accompanying slides. For clarity, those comments have been moved in these minutes to the most appropriate section. Also, votes on specific items were by show of hands: abstentions or non-votes were not counted.) Following were the items considered:

Demolition. (Please see attached, slide 15, for a description of the Pottstown example.)

  • After Pottstown requirements were explained, a question was asked about the period Pottstown requires for “an eyesore” to be reused or marketed. That provision could be softened in the case of structures that are clearly irreparable.

  • The suggestion was made that demolition of attached structures (with different owners) should be quite restricted.

  • A resident suggested that the potential time frame for getting a conservation district in place (six to twelve months) should be accelerated because of the threat currently posed to several properties in the neighborhood.

  • After discussion, the group was asked to vote on whether or not they were in favor or opposed to regulating demolition in the West Ward, modelled on the Pottstown ordinance. (Voting was limited to West Ward residents only.) The vote was seven in favor, zero opposed.

Architectural Style: Existing Buildings. (Slide 16)

  • The discussion revolved around the concern that regulations could make renovations or repairs too expensive for many property owners. It was agreed that language to the effect that “features should be replaced with items that are similar in size and scale” would be sufficient. If original features have been removed, they should not have to be replicated, but the uncovering and repair of original features should be encouraged.  

  • After discussion, the group voted on the premise that regulations should be created for existing building renovations “to an extent.” All were in favor.

Architectural Style: New Buildings. (Slide 17)

  • The point was made that Pottstown’s ordinance in this category is probably too restrictive. A suggestion was made that “scale” of new buildings is an important concern but that over-regulation, or even design suggestions that are too limited, may prevent the possibility of having good, creative architectural designs.

  • After an extended discussion, there was no consensus on whether new building design should be regulated strictly, by recommendations only or not at all. The matter of regulations governing new building design will be revisited.

New Buildings massing and height. (Slides 18-20)

  • It was noted that Easton’s zoning ordinance already covers setbacks, with neighborhood-appropriate standards. No changes to setback requirements were made.

  • There was considerable discussion of height requirements, particularly along the Northampton Street overlay corridor. While there is a concern about inappropriately tall buildings, there was also an awareness that in certain locations (such as the 600 block of Northampton St.) developers may need to construct buildings of a certain size for their projects to be economically feasible, so a greater height may be acceptable there than elsewhere on Northampton St.

  • Residents expressed concern about building a taller structure next to a lower existing residence. A suggestion was made that rather than have a single maximum height in a given zoning district, the height could be limited to, say, 15 feet taller than the average height of the buildings on a given block. (In that way, buildings in a highly redeveloped block could become taller over time.) That suggestion was strongly supported.

  • Everyone agreed that zoning and conservation district regulations should encourage mixed-uses on commercial streets, with commercial uses on the street level and residential above.

Design requirements, existing and new buildings. (Slides 21-27)

  • Regarding existing buildings, the language discussed earlier, that “features should be replaced with items that are similar in size and scale” should serve as a guideline for any conservation district regulations.

  • Regarding new buildings, the topic will be considered at a later meeting.

Additions. (Slide 28)

  • There was general agreement that standards cover additions that face the public right-of-way, and that regulations should encourage the construction of additions that have the “least possible impact” from the street.

Porches. (Slide 29)

  • The conflicts between building code requirements, good design and historic preservation were discussed. Where a railing is required (generally, if the porch is at least 30” above the adjacent grade), codes often mandate that it be 42” high, versus the 24” to 36” that is common and visually desirable. The International Building Code contains this provision: “3407.1 Historic Buildings The provisions of this code relating to the construction, repair, alteration, addition, restoration and movement of structures, and change of occupancy shall not be mandatory for historic buildings where such buildings are judged by the building official to not constitute a distinct life safety hazard.” The conservation district ordinance should be consistent with this flexibility.

  • A question was asked if building codes mandate that railing spindles must be rectangular or square. (Note: I am unable to find any code provision that mandates this. PF)

  • All agreed that standards similar to Pottstown for porch renovations should be required for porches that face the street only.

Fences and Walls. (Slide 30)

  • There was general agreement that standards cover fences and walls along the line of Pottstown regulations, but with several other considerations:

  • Provision should include a specific section to strongly encourage the preservation of the West Ward’s many historic cast iron fences, whether they face the street or not;

  • Stockade (solid) fences may be permissible around back yard pools or in other cases where privacy is important, but for both esthetic and crime-prevention reasons, they should be discouraged in yards facing the street.

  • Chain link fences should not be permitted in yards facing the street.

The next discussion topic concerned establishing boundaries for a West Ward Conservation District. An Easton map was discussed (Slide 31) as follows:

  • Historically, the West Ward begins at 6th Street. (According to Tom Jones, it was defined in the 1874 Easton Atlas as extending from 6th to 15th Street.) Although Easton’s downtown National Historic District extends beyond 6th Street, Tom noted that the jurisdiction of Easton’s Historic Architectural Review Board does NOT go beyond 6th Street, and therefore 6th Street is a logical conservation district eastern boundary for both historical and legal reasons. All agreed.

  • Everyone also agreed that other boundaries should be the Bushkill Creek, 15th Street and the Lehigh River.

  • Inclusion of the former Pfizer plant west of 13th Street was also discussed. No decision was reached.

An outline of future actions (Slide 32) was briefly reviewed. Tom and Paul said they would follow up with further meetings and discussions to continue this process. The meeting was adjourned at 9:10 pm.

Please send comments and corrections to Paul Felder: pfelder@rcn.com