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Posted Thursday, June 13th, 2019

Would Allow Use of Preservation Dollars for Historic Preservation of Properties Owned by Faith-Based Organizations

Assemblyman Anthony Bucco

Assemblyman Anthony Bucco

The Morris County Board of Freeholders has endorsed a State Constitutional Amendment proposed by Assemblyman Anthony Bucco to allow use of public funds to preserve historic properties owned by religious groups for structures listed or eligible for listing on the New Jersey or National Registers of Historic Places.

The proposed Amendment (ACR235) is a response to a 2018 State Supreme Court decision that prevents the award of voter-approved preservation funds to faith-based organizations to help them preserve historically important structures they own in Morris County and across the state.

“It is my honor lead on this issue to help preserve our state’s many historically valuable religious-connected buildings. Our state is rich with history, and it’s vital that we preserve that history,” said Assemblyman Bucco.

“Here in Morris County, some of our most valued historical sites are religious institutions. As such, because of the current court ruling, they are not eligible to use public preservation dollars to help maintain and preserve these sites, even though the county has created a historic preservation trust fund for just that purpose. That’s unacceptable, and my constitutional amendment aims to fix it.”

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Mountain Lakes

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Mountain Lakes, a Gothic Revival style building erected in 1926, is an example of a historic property that has benefitted from the county preservation trust fund.

Some of the most valued historic sites across Morris County are owned and maintained by religious institutions and over the past two decades those sites have received about 30 percent of the historic preservation grants awarded annually by the Morris County Board of Freeholders.

Morris County Historic Preservation grants have been awarded under neutral criteria, and houses of worship had only been only allowed to use grant funding to repair a historic building’s exterior and mechanical systems.

However, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that giving neutral treatment to houses of worship constituted religious activity in violation of the New Jersey Constitution. The United States Supreme Court earlier this year declined to consider an appeal filed by the county.

“We believe Morris County’s historic preservation program has helped maintain and enrich the historic environment in our county, allowing us to preserve our history so that we remember, honor and better understand our origins,’’ said Freeholder Director Doug Cabana.

South Street Presbyterian Church

“In Morris County, we have worked to preserve all of our historical sites, and that includes some magnificent houses of worship, dating back to the 1700s and designed by the leading architects of their time,’’ Cabana added. “They are an integral part of our history.’’

In 2002, Morris County voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot question asking if a percentage of the money generated each year by the county’s Open Space and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund could be diverted for use on historic properties. About 78 percent of voters of Morris County supported the proposal.

Subsequently, the Board of Freeholders created the Morris County Historic Preservation Trust Fund Review Board, appointed qualified volunteers, and adopted the Historic Preservation Trust Fund Program rules and regulations, which included religious institutions as eligible applicants.

Preservation activities for all religious institutions were strictly limited to the exterior, and structural and mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems of historic structures.

Since 2003, the Board Freeholders has awarded $33.9 million in Historic Preservation Trust Fund grants to all eligible recipients.

Read ACR235: