Sunday, August 19, 2007

Abbott Manor Case - NY Times - Win for historic district in expansion case

Published in the New York Times, Sunday, August 19, 2007 - Real Estate Section.

In the Region | New Jersey
Altercation Over an Addition



ONCE a piece of history is gone, it will never come back,” said Dottie Gutenkauf, a resident of one of 10 designated historic districts in this town.

“That is why we had to persist,” she added, describing a battle to prevent construction of a large addition to a nursing home in her Victorian-era neighborhood. “The character of the building the nursing home was in, and that of the streets around it, was going to be obliterated,” she said.

A house was to be surrounded on two sides by the L-shaped expansion of Abbott Manor Nursing Home, which had operated in the neighborhood for 20 years; also, the three-story addition would loom close to a Tudor that serves as an Episcopal rectory.

So in 2000, when the nursing home’s owners first applied for a zoning variance to permit the construction, Ms. Gutenkauf and others in the Van Wyck Brooks Historic District organized to oppose it.

They researched zoning ordinances, gathered documents, testified at hearings and declared success when the application was denied in 2002, as Ms. Gutenkauf duly reported in her blog, called the Plaintalker, at the time.

The nursing home owners, a company called CPR Holdings Inc., moved residents from the nursing home in 2005, settling them in a similar facility it owns in Scotch Plains. But despite that, Ms. Gutenkauf’s declaration of victory proved premature.

In 2005 the zoning board abruptly reversed itself, granting the variance after CPR sued the town. Its argument was that without the modern addition, handicapped residents were being denied their right to fair and adequate housing.

It was at this point that Ms. Gutenkauf and her neighbors filed a suit of their own — one that took until late last month to resolve. “And our legal bill is very, very large,” said Gerry Heydt, a plaintiff who is also president of the district residents’ association.

Superior Court Judge Walter R. Barisonek rejected the nursing home owners’ argument that federal fair housing law protected handicapped residents’ right to live in that particular spot.

Steven C. Rother, the Roseland lawyer who argued for CPR, said in a recent telephone interview that the company declined to comment because it might appeal.

But William Michelson, the lawyer for the neighborhood residents, said he viewed an appeal as unlikely. “Judge Barisonek’s careful and detailed analysis will surely give them pause,” he said.

That analysis, according to Mr. Michelson, contained an element that could be significant to preservationists in future cases: The judge rebuffed CPR’s contention that the existing legal recognition of nursing homes as of “beneficial use” to a community automatically supersedes preservationist concerns.

“The ruling was the first time a New Jersey court has declared the validity and importance of historic districts, and described what their effect should be on land-use applications,” said Mr. Michelson, a resident of Plainfield who once served on its planning board and helped write its master plan.

Along with the four neighborhood residents named in the lawsuit — Ms. Gutenkauf; Ms. Heydt and her husband, Arne Aakre; and Kenneth Philogene — Mr. Michelson has taken the position that the vitality of Plainfield as a whole is at stake in the fight over historic-district standards

Twenty-five years ago, he said in a recent interview, the town was in a state of serious decline and headed toward “even worse.” Local officials decided at the time that the one likely path to salvation was to protect the community’s chief asset: its ample stock of wondrous old structures.

Mr. Michelson and his partner, Victor Quinn, had been among a first wave of gays drawn to Plainfield by the opportunity to buy Victorian diamonds in the rough and restore them as showplaces; they restored one, and then another, both in historic districts.

Ms. Gutenkauf and her husband, Joe, who also moved to Plainfield in the early 1980s, bought a converted barn dating to 1889. Although she claims it still has the faint smell of hay about it, it is now in pristine condition, listed on the National Historic Register with others in the Van Wyck Brooks district.

The man who gave the district its name, a critic and literary historian and Plainfield native son, was born not far from Ms. Gutenkauf’s house, around the time it was built, she said.

Plainfield today is an urban sort of suburb, ethnically and culturally diverse, with its own symphony orchestra, a lively arts scene and delis, bodegas and soul food restaurants. African-Americans once made up a majority of the population, though they have now been surpassed in number by Hispanic residents.

A gay presence is large and well established, and there is an annual tour of historic homes owned by gays and lesbians. Former Gov. James E. McGreevey and his partner, Mark O’Donnell, live in a Plainfield home with gardens retaining their original historic design by the firm of the Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

“The historic districts make this a rather unique place to live,” Mr. Michelson said. “Not just the exceptional architecture, but people are given a way to buy into a community that feels like a real community, where you have something in common with everyone around you.”

Mr. Michelson and Ms. Gutenkauf each remarked on the depth of various neighbors’ involvement in the Abbott Manor issue. Mr. Aakre, a trained architect, probably provided the coup de grĂ¢ce, they said, with his scale models of the nursing home before and after expansion.

“The judge gasped when he saw them,” Ms. Gutenkauf said. “He picked them up, held them side by side, and I think it really made a splash.”

The ornate yellow-brick nursing-home building, which has a columned wood portico and was originally a private home, is now looking distinctly forlorn, seemingly not kept up since the residents vacated. None of the neighbors know what will become of it.

“What we hope, of course,” Ms. Heydt said, “is that it will be restored, and rejoin the other beautiful buildings in the district.”

Online story here. Archived here.

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Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.