Wednesday, May 4, 2016

HARB Explained

For this topic, I need to say this up front: Share this with your Norristown friends. There's too much misinformation floating around.

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.

First, let's look at our districts. The map at the top of this blog is the Central Norristown Historic District and the green one at the left is the West Norristown Historic District. You notice that each one is shown in 2 colors. Each district has a Zone A and Zone B. The buildings in the center of each district are considered our most architecturally valuable so the rules governing changes to their facades are a bit stricter. Zone B is sort of a transition zone. There are also rules for the facades there but they're a bit more lax. Some people think every property owner in Norristown has to go before the HARB before doing home improvement. No. Only those people owning buildings within these districts and only changes to the OUTSIDE of the buildings that can be seen from a street or alley. So you folks in the North End can quit telling your neighbors to worry about it.

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
HARB doesn't conduct their meetings like Zoning or Planning. It's not the Board up at the big table while the applicant and audience have to stay across the great divide on the other side of the steps. With HARB, the applicants are invited up to sit at the table. Their materials are spread out and the conversation is less like a board hearing and more like a chat around a kitchen table. The applicants can share their needs and vision. The board members share their expertise. Imagine being able to pitch your home improvement project to the cast of This Old House. You can get expert suggestions on what materials will work best for the price, have someone vet your plan for potential fire hazards, etc.

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.
One of the HARB members told me last week "No one wants to have to come before the HARB, but everyone wants their neighbors to." Why? Because well-kept historic buildings raise property values. If they're maintained in a way that retains their historic facade, they'll appreciate in value faster than a new house or an older home that's been covered in siding or stucco. If you Google "property value of historic districts," you'll see dozens of studies and articles from all over the country that show how the property value of houses in a historic district are more likely to rise faster than the values of regular neighborhoods, all the more so if the district is listed on the National Register. (Go to this National Board of Realtors link if you want to read one of the articles.)

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

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