Living In An Historic District

Orangetown has a significant number of older houses, and a rich history dating back to before the Revolutionary War. In 1965, the Town of Orangetown enacted a local law establishing a Historic District in Tappan with the intent to help preserve the older houses and the historic look of the community. Three years later, in 1968, a similar law was passed in Palisades, establishing the Palisades Historic District. For over 50 years these laws, which impose controls on the design of new houses and the style of alterations to existing ones, have been administered by the Historic Areas Board of Review (HABR), which has members from both Palisades and Tappan.

A recent New York Times article by Binyamin Appelbaum criticized the idea of Historic Districts, stating that “We are placing large chunks of our cities under glass, preventing what should be some of our most vibrant neighborhoods from growing and changing as the country grows and changes.” The President of the National Trust for Historic preservation, Paul Edmonson, answered that charge, writing in a letter to the Times, that “The goal of preservation is not to ‘freeze’ properties in time, but to manage change in a way that preserves community character.”

There is no doubt that the existence of the Historic Laws and the dedicated work of HABR have had an important beneficial effect on the character of the community in both Tappan and Palisades. Recently, with community support, HABR was able to stop the construction of a 12,000-square-foot house next to the Palisades Cemetery. In spite of this, some residents complain that they are not allowed by HABR to build as they want to. Often these are people who bought houses without realizing they were living in a historic district and would thus be subject to oversight from HABR. We need to find better ways of informing people that they live in a historic district, and what it means.

What you need to know: In the Palisades Historic District, (see map) you are obliged to get approval from HABR before building a house or changing the exterior of a house. Solar panels, storage sheds, fences and generators also require approval. Oversight is more stringent for properties built before 1918. It’s a complicated issue, and it’s important to begin any project by contacting the Town Building Department first to find out how to proceed and what permits are required.