Springfield’s new historical ordinance aims to preserve township’s past

by Barbara Sheehan
Posted 3/11/21

At the February meeting of the Springfield Township Historical Commission, the commissioners shared their recent accomplishment; it was the first step toward their mission to retain the historic character of their township.

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Springfield’s new historical ordinance aims to preserve township’s past

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At the February meeting of the Springfield Township Historical Commission, the commissioners shared their recent accomplishment; it was the first step toward their mission to retain the historic character of their township.

The Commission, established a year ago, introduced Ordinance Number 962 for a Historic Resource Overlay District, which went into effect on January 5. Authorized by the new ordinance, they presented their plan to work with 28 properties that had been identified as of historical value in the township. All 28 property owners were invited to the meeting, but only one showed up.

While this was disappointing to the commission members, they said they remain committed to the plan and excited about what it could do for the township.

Albert Comly, an architect and member of the Historical Commission, said that many developers consider a site to be more valuable than the historic building it hosts.

“There are a number of sites that have decent size parcels,” said Comly, “but the buildings have value and are part of the reason people are coming to Springfield. We are trying to do what we can to retain that.”

In a recent interview, Comly and Baird Standish, President of the Springfield Township Board of Commissioners and Commissioner Liaison to the Historical Commission, explained that their approach to historic preservation has actually removed some of the barriers that other municipalities have encountered. For one thing, participation in the program is strictly voluntary.

The plan allows for a Historical Resource Overlay Zone that will allow a building that is deemed historical more flexibility than the township zoning law regarding the potential uses of the property.

“Think of it as a premium,” Comly explained. “This ordinance allows for a special exception.”

The overlay gives the owners another avenue for a beneficial use for the building.

For instance, zoning law might not permit an owner to turn a property into a multi-family dwelling, but the overlay will allow the owner to do so. What other uses might be allowable under that ordinance? To come up with the list of acceptable uses, the Commissioners worked with a planner assigned to them by the Montgomery County Planning Commission. They looked at models from other townships with historical districts, such as Ambler and Cheltenham.

“We went through every specific designation and potential use,” said Standish, “and spent time debating it and figuring out what was appropriate for our township.”

The result was a list of possible uses that an owner could propose to the Commission. The list includes the following: a bed and breakfast; a cultural studio; a home office; an academic research center; a food prep and catering site; an assisted living facility; a gallery, museum, or antique shop; a small (non auto) repair shop; an accessory apartment; and finally, conversion to a multi-family dwelling.

Comly emphasized that the program is not dictatorial.

“We are not here to say what color you should paint your shutters,” he explained. “This is to retain the structure of the building.”

He said that they are not trying to scare off developers, but rather to provide options that are flexible and economical for property owners.

The Commission is starting with an inventory of 28 properties that were selected as historically significant in the Township’s comprehensive plan created six years ago. They used measures recommended by the PA Historical and Museum Commission -- such as significant designer, significant event and significant resident -- to discern historical significance. The inventory will then extend to other properties in the township. They have their work cut out for them; the county has provided a list of 1600 buildings in the township that were built before 1920.

Standish said the movement toward preserving Springfield’s historic buildings started as far back as 2000-2001 when the Planning Commission drafted a similar ordinance that failed to pass.

“The reason it died was because it had some teeth,” explained Standish. “It was extensive and included all 1600 properties. It felt like the commission was taking over the properties.”

Through this new ordinance, Comly said, “We are trying to create a partnership with the homeowners to promote the general welfare, by protecting historical resources.”

Springfield Township covers an area of 6.16 square miles and borders on Whitemarsh, Cheltenham, Upper Dublin and Abington townships, as well as the City of Philadelphia.

According to local authors Charles and Edward Zwicker, the township, originally called “Penn’s Manor of Springfield,” was first established in 1681, as a gift from William Penn to his wife, Gulielma Maria Springett. The township has four village centers: Oreland, Wyndmoor, Erdenheim, and Flourtown.  Several properties in the Township are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including: the Black Horse Inn, Carson College for Girls, Springfield Mill, and the Yeakle and Miller Houses.

Township residents seeking information about the new ordinance may contact Mark A. Penecale, Director of Planning and Zoning for Springfield Township at mpenecale@springfieldmontco.org

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