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Potential HARB Sparks Controversy In State College

A house in the Holmes-Foster Historic District, which will be under the proposed HARB.
Sarah Paez


A Historical and Architectural Review Board, or HARB, could be coming to State College soon.

At a series of HARB community workshops and public meetings hosted by the borough of State College, homeowners and residents voiced their opinions about having a board come to the borough.

The State College HARB would be an advisory board to protect the architectural heritage of the historic districts of College Heights, Holmes-Foster and Highlands. The HARB would recommend to the borough council whether to approve or deny property alterations.

More than 1,000 properties would be under the HARB ordinance.

“It’s a way to preserve the commonwealth of State College for future generations,” said Eric Boeldt, the chairman for the Design and Historical Review Board, which doesn’t have as much recommending power as a HARB. Boeldt has been pushing for a HARB for about a year.

At a Nov. 8 meeting, business owner John Simbeck told the State College Borough Council that a HARB could hurt businesses like his. He said the review process required before renovations or repairs would take too long.

“I think commercial properties being treated the same as single family homes is really at issue for me and it may just make it so we’ll just sell the building and let a retailer have it and move on,” said Simbeck.

Homeowner Polly Dunn, who attended a community meeting about the HARB, is on the fence.

“I think the idea of not destroying historic homes and preserving historic homes is important but I see this as a long process, a process that requires staff and money that the borough may not have,” she said.

At the same meeting, homeowner Dan Carduck said a HARB would derail the plans he had for his house.

“My long term strategy when I bought that house and certainly overpaid for it was that maybe 30 years down the road somebody’s gonna want to come in and pay me a lot of money and maybe tear the place down and put up something bigger,” he said. “So I don’t think that it’s fair for someone else to come in and tell me that they are now in control over what I can do with my property.”

A house in the Holmes-Foster Historic District. The proposed HARB will make recommendations for property alterations visible from the street.
Credit Sarah Paez / WPSU
A house in the Holmes-Foster Historic District. The proposed HARB will make recommendations for property alterations visible from the street.

Ed LeClear, the planning director for State College, said there is strong consensus from the community on finding a way to keep historic buildings.

“The potential demolition of a property in College Heights I think was kind of a catalyst that put this back on the table,” he said. “I think everyone said, you know, we don’t really have a way as a community to stop the demolition of a historic resource.”

Overall, the borough found that people who attended the community meetings were almost evenly split between supporting a HARB to advise projects or not. They also valued preserving heritage, but were very clear that they did not want a HARB to overreach.

Local officials said the HARB will only consider modifications visible from the street. They also said community input is very important to them in determining how to set up a HARB.

Bellefonte, a nearby borough known for its Victorian architecture, has used a HARB for more than 40 years.

Pat Long, who serves on the Bellefonte HARB, said historic preservation in Bellefonte has increased tourism.

“People like to come to Bellefonte. They like what they see,” she said. “I think every Wednesday we get a couple buses downtown coming in for shopping at the antique shops, walking around, looking at things, eating at our businesses downtown. So, the HARB has helped in that respect because the businesses are well kept.”

But the Bellefonte HARB has also deterred people from buying property there.

Jacki Hunt, a real estate agent in Centre County who also underwrites for WPSU, said she was helping a young couple who had planned to buy in Bellefonte.

“And then they said, 'no we can’t move to Bellefonte. We can’t afford to buy a house that is a little down at the heels and then have to meet the requirements of the architectural review board,'” she said.

The HARB, for example, has denied requests for metal roofs that weren’t period appropriate, instead recommending more expensive ones.

Sam McGinley, chairman of the Bellefonte HARB, said homeowners should not be put off by the advent of a HARB.

“The HARB board is really a resource for the people that own properties in the historic district,” he said. “I think a lot of the public perception is we dictate to the public what has to be done, but we are a resource to help them preserve that property for future generations.”

The State College Borough Council will hold a public hearing on the HARB ordinance on Dec. 4 and will vote on it Dec. 18.


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