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West Newton ponders pros, cons of 'historic district' designation

Joe Napsha
| Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Part of West Newton's downtown business district could be deemed a historic district, a designation that state and local officials say might help the community attract businesses and development, rather than restrict it.

“There is no downside to this for West Newton. This is an opportunity for downtown (West Newton) to make a strong connection to the (Yough River) trail ... to make downtown an experience,” Bill Callahan, Western Pennsylvania community preservation coordinator for the state Bureau of Historic Preservation, told West Newton Council Monday.

The Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission last month determined that West Newton's business district was eligible to apply to be designated as historic district on the National Register of Historic Places, Callahan said. The Historical & Museum Commission made its determination based on a historic survey that The Progress Fund's Trail Town Programs conducted two years ago, Callahan told council at its workshop session.

The proposed historic district on the east side of the Youghiogheny River covers 46 properties. The area is bounded by the West Newton Bridge, East Main Street to Third Street, parts of Second Street, the former Baltimore & Ohio train station and along North Water Street to the former U.S. Radiator Co. building. The proposed historic district would include the former Baltimore & Ohio railroad line and the Moose Lodge on East Main Street that was once a garage for Ford Model T cars, built about a century ago.

“I'm all for it. I just want to do it the right way,” Council President George Molovich said.

A historic district designation for West Newton “becomes a powerful promotion and marketing tool for a town like this,” situated along the Great Allegheny Passage, which connects Pittsburgh with Cumberland, Md., Callahan said.

“It will bring in people who want to live in a historic town and push out some of the problems,” said Aaron Nelson, president of Downtown West Newton Inc., an economic development and community improvement organization.

Molovich said he was concerned that the designation of a historic district would place restrictions on what property owners can do with their houses.

“There's no restrictions on the properties that are in the historic district,” which is a common misconception about what the Register of Historic Places designation means, Callahan said. Owners of the properties within the historic district can expand or renovate their properties or demolish them, if desired, Callahan said.

Local ordinances passed in some communities do place zoning restrictions on historically-designated properties, said Callahan. Those zoning ordinances can provide what Callahan termed as “investment protection.”

If West Newton applies to have the downtown business district designated as a historic district, the application is reviewed by the state Historical and Museum Commission and then turned over to the National Register of Historic Places. The application review process can take anywhere from six months to six years, Callahan said.

The Trail Town Programs or another entity could submit the application for a historic district designation, Callahan said. The application is very detailed and typically a consultant is hired to complete the application, Callahan said. The state has a historic preservation grant program that provides matching grants from $5,000 to $25,000 to hire a consultant for submitting an application, Callahan said.

Molovich said he was not certain the borough could afford, in its 2014 budget, the money needed to match the state grant for hiring a consultant.

Will Prince, coordinator of The Progress Fund's Trail Town Program, which is spearheading the renovations of the former Riverside Lounge on South Water Street, said he was not certain the organization would have the staff available to complete the application for historic designation.

Callahan, whose district covers 26 counties in Western Pennsylvania, said he and Keith Heinrich, a historic preservation specialist at the Historic Preservation bureau, plan to walk the boundaries of West Newton's proposed historic district on Oct. 22 to review the properties. Heinrich handles the National Register program for Central and Western Pennsylvania.

Westmoreland County already has 13 districts listed in the National Register of Historic Places, including two in Greensburg and sites in Mt. Pleasant and Scottdale. The National Register is the nation's official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation. The properties typically are significant in American history, architecture, archeology and culture.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at jnapsha@tribweb.com or 724-836-5252.

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