Forney House, Milltown landmark, falls despite local opposition
A sad day for New Jerseyans who value the landmarks and neighborhoods that give our communities character: the Forney House, the stately 19th century house and clinic on Milltown’s (Middlesex County) Main Street, was demolished over the weekend, to be replaced with a drive-through facility for Valley National Bank.
A vocal group of borough residents had been engaged in 2+ year campaign to save the house from demolition and had pushed to have the property designated as a historic landmark to save it. The “John C. Evans Project” successfully nominated the house to Preservation New Jersey’s 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites list last year and have continued a tough and sustained advocacy campaign to try to save it.
PNJ participated with the local advocates, the Milltown Historical Society and others in the federal “Section 106” review process, the only historic preservation regulatory avenue available because Milltown has no local landmark protection ordinance. The Section 106 process allows for at least some public participation and comment, since a federal agency – in this case the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency or OCC – licenses the new bank location and is required to go through the review process because the house was deemed eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
While the review process ended with a decision by OCC to allow demolition after a few historic artifacts were removed and preserved, the NJ State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) was able to document that, contrary to claims by Milltown’s Mayor, the bank and the property owner selling to the bank that it was “unsalvageable,” the house was in very good condition. The result: an eminently restorable and reusable landmark that told the story of Milltown’s rich history and had every opportunity for exciting adaptation to new uses has been lost.
Lessons to be learned:
- the Section 106 process desperately requires strengthening, and federal agencies like OCC should be required much greater accountability and responsiveness to public concerns about heritage and quality of life
- New Jersey must pass legislation that protects citizens who are exercising their rights to participate in public processes like zoning variance hearings and Section 106 from punitive lawsuits by applicants (both the John C. Evans project group and individuals who were representing community groups were sued by the bank and the property owner, respectively, to attempt to silence their concerns)
- Milltown, and many more communities in New Jersey, need to improve the historic preservation elements of the town Master Plans, adopt preservation ordinances, and protect valued landmarks and districts through local zoning
- the State of New Jersey needs to adopt a state historic preservation tax credit, joining 29 other states that have demonstrated that these incentives stimulate investment and offer homeowners and small developers the financial tools to save, restore and reuse buildings like the Forney House
- preservation advocates should run for – and WIN! – public office to ensure that sounder voices are leading our communities in the future
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