CAPE MAY — The Historic Preservation Commission, guardians of the city’s tourist-pleasing Victorian heritage, want changes to city building standards to help preserve its architecture and status.

The commission enforces the use of old building materials by following a booklet of “design standards.” The city’s standards have won awards, but commission Chairman Warren Copeland said Tuesday they are a decade old, drafted before residents were putting up things such as solar panels, satellite-television dishes and wind turbines, and need to be revised.

This can be done only by City Council. So on Tuesday, Copeland came before Council looking for support.

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Being historically accurate means building windows out of wood and shingling roofs with cedar shakes. It means picking wood over vinyl for most construction materials in the Historic District and making sure things such as solar panels and windmills are, at least, not visible from the street.

Pushing the old building materials is not an easy task when homeowners often want to modernize.

Deputy Mayor Jack Wichterman said he does not envy Copeland’s job.

“We get pushed, but we push back,” Copeland said.

The commission has even had some well-publicized spats with the city over its construction projects that used modern building materials.

While the beaches draw many visitors to the city, Copeland said, the old homes also help bring them to town and have led to “unparalleled economic success” in recent years. Much of the draw is based on the prestige of the National Park Service giving the city National Historic Landmark status in 1976 for its large collection of vintage Victorian homes. The designation led to placement on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places, creation of the HPC and a Historic District, and eventually an ongoing survey of 1,525 structures, including more than 600 dating to the 19th century.

“We have the largest collection of 19th century wood-frame structures in the country,” Copeland said. “Our goal is to ensure the integrity of the Cape May National Historic Landmark status is maintained.”

That integrity has been challenged before. The Department of Interior’s National Park Service put the city on its “watch list” of landmarks in trouble after the Christian Admiral Hotel was demolished in 1996 and again in 2008 due to what Copeland called “inappropriate new construction, demolition and traffic” that he says can harm foundations of the old homes. Losing the status could reduce prestige, grants and tax breaks. Though the city is off the list now due to an action plan the HPC put together five years ago, Copeland wants to make sure it stays that way.

“The Secretary of Interior wants everything to remain as it is, or even better, as it was,” Copeland said.

Copeland did not announce any concrete proposals. The meeting on Tuesday was at a council work session set merely for discussion. But Copeland gave some hints on what the HPC will ask for in the coming months. The standards now, for example, say roofs “should” be made of cedar shakes. The standards on siding are more forceful, saying it “will” be cedar siding.

“In the future, we are prepared to have a lengthy discussion on this issue. We will come to the City Council to ask for support to keep the best standards,” Copeland said.

Councilman William Murray argued the older building materials are more expensive and require more maintenance. He noted some synthetic building materials are “similar in appearance and workability,” and even “take paint” like wood.

Copeland countered that some immediate savings don’t always prove cheaper when measured over longer periods. Modern replacement windows, he noted, often last only 20 years, while rebuilding the old windows can make them good for another century.

Wichterman, who belongs to the Cape May Kiwanis Club, said the club was required to put a cedar-shake roof on its clubhouse in 2005. It cost $52,000.

“I can’t imagine what that’s like for a homeowner. It does make the town what it is, obviously,” Wichterman said.

The ongoing survey, paid for by state and local funding, can result in homes being given historic status, which can then result in the standards being required.

In December, 349 house surveys will go to council for approval. Another 533 will follow about one month later. Copeland said 1,525 structures are in the Historic District. Almost 900 surveys have been done to date. At Tuesday’s meeting, the council accepted another $25,000 state grant to continue the survey work and pledged to match it.

Mailings will go out to the homeowners, Copeland said. He said he hopes to reach out to the public via Facebook and the HPC section on the city’s Website.

Contact Richard Degener:


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