Norristown's Historical Architectural Review Board (HARB) are the volunteers tasked with approving changes to the facades (the outsides) of all buildings within our Historic Districts. If you own a house in one of these districts and you want to, say, put on a new roof or replace windows or even hang a sign on your wall, you bring your plans before HARB. They'll go over them in detail. If anything in your plans isn't appropriate to the historic look of the facade, or would in some way damage the outside of the building, you'll be asked to make changes to your plan. You (or your contractor) can't get a construction permit until the HARB sends their approval to Council.
Lately everyone's up in arms about this. Homeowners don't want to go before the HARB because they've been told by their neighbors or people at their church, or even folks at Boro Hall, how awful the process is and that HARB will make you do stuff you can't afford, etc. These are nothing but rumors. I'm going to tell you why going before the HARB is a good idea, for property owners, the neighborhoods, and for our town.
I observed HARB for the first time a couple of years ago, not long after I started the Norristown Diary. I was at Municipal Hall for another meeting and when that let out, there was such a horrendous thunderstorm raging outside, I decided to sit in on the HARB meeting in Council Chambers until the rain and lightening slowed down. After twenty minutes, I decided that they knew what they were doing and could be trusted not to do anything that would harm Norristown. One reason I hardly every mention them on the Diary.
Last week, after hearing a lot of the rumors at the Council meeting on April 16, I decided to attend a HARB meeting again to see if anything changed. I went to the meeting on April 25.
|Well-maintained historic house at 907 Dekalb|
At both meetings, I heard HARB members give suggestions that would actually save the property owner money on materials. Now, I can't promise they'll be able to do this for everyone, but the members of our HARB aren't as strict as members of similar boards in other towns in our area that have historic districts (try fixing up a historic house in Philly if you don't believe me). Our HARB members do their best to work within the budgets of our homeowners. But they also do their best to protect our Historic Districts buildings for us. Not only is that important for Norristown's economy, it saves EVERY Historic District property owner money in the long run. Here's how:
|The left side of this historic twin is going to be restored.|
When HARB asks a property owner to make changes to their plans, the end result will be that the building in question will more likely retain or appreciate in value better than if the property owner made their own decisions. When homeowners try to do work on their own to their historical facades, without a permit, it's not only illegal, it usually lowers the value of the house and sometimes the neighboring houses. Encouraging each other to sneak around HARB rules and take the cheapest and illegal way out only succeeds in turning Norristown into a place that will never attract new homeowners or businesses.
This is why we need to support HARB and promote pride in our historical architecture.
HARB meets the 4th Wednesday of each month at 7 pm at Municipal Hall if you'd like to observe what they do. The meetings tend to run long because they take their time and do it right. Just tell them you want to observe and they'll invite you to pull up a chair.
If you're thinking of making changes to the outside of a historic house in Norristown, the HARB procedure is explained at this link. But if you'd like to ask HARB questions BEFORE making plans, come to a meeting. You'll have to wait until their scheduled cases have been taken care of, but they'll be happy to talk to you.
The board has vacancies at the moment, if you think you'd like to volunteer. They'd really like to have a realtor on the board, if you know anyone who'd be interested. But also, it would be nice to have someone who lives in one of the Districts and has done restoration work to their own facades, and understands the homeowners' point of view. Recommended that you sit in on a meeting before volunteering, but anyone interested should send a letter of interest and resume to Council President Sonya Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org.