Preservationists often rely on local height ordinances and federal designations as a first line of defense in the protection of historic resources. Sometimes these legal mechanisms work. However, this reliance is sometimes misplaced, especially when local governments grant zoning variances and refuse to consider the effect of these variances on adjacent historic resources, even if the resource is nationally significant. Such is the threat facing the pristine cliffs of the New Jersey Palisades, a National Historic Landmark and National Natural Monument that have been successfully preserved for more than a century.
Recognizing the threat posed to the integrity of the Palisades National Historic Landmark by a proposed office tower, the National Trust recently joined forces with a coalition of preservation and conservation groups in filing an amicus curiae brief in the New Jersey Court of Appeals on April 4.1 The coalition includes the Preservation League of New York State, among others. A copy of the amicus brief is available here.
Background and Procedural History
Litigation to protect the Palisades arose after the Town of Englewood Cliffs, N.J., granted a variance to LG Corporation to build an office tower that would visually mar the historic Palisades landscape. The eight-story tower would be 143 feet tall, more than four times the existing height limit of 35 feet.2 If construction of the LG tower goes forward, it would represent the first breach of the viewshed in the 100-year history of protecting the Palisades north of the George Washington Bridge in their natural state. In recognition of the LG tower’s adverse effects, the World Monuments Fund included the Palisades on its Watch List last year.
Although zoning height restrictions in existence at the time of the original construction application (March 2011) would have prohibited LG’s proposed building, the town granted a zoning variance, issuing its approval of the project in February 2012, after six public hearings. Then, the town amended the zoning law in October 2012 to eliminate the need for a variance. Several lawsuits followed and were later consolidated by the trial court, which ruled in favor of the town and LG on August 9, 2013.
Meanwhile, after appeals of the trial court’s rulings were filed in August 2013, a separate lawsuit was filed in October 2013, specifically challenging the October 2012 zoning amendment. This subsequent lawsuit focuses on whether the town created an illegal spot zone, which is an unconstitutional zoning decision that benefits one property owner only, to the detriment of others, and is inconsistent with the local comprehensive plan. The spot zoning lawsuit is ongoing.
The Palisades’ Historic Significance
The Palisades were designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965 and represent an unusual cooperative effort, which started in the late 1890s by two states, New Jersey and New York, to preserve the scenic beauty of much of the lower west bank of the Hudson River. The Palisades’ historic significance lies in its long history of human development, use, and enjoyment, as the object of some of the country’s earliest conservation and protection efforts, and as a treasured viewshed for millions living in and traveling through the region. Moreover, Native American tribes, including the Sanhikan, Hackensack, Raritan, and Tappan nations, used the cliffs as shelter and protection for centuries. The lands atop the cliffs were developed during European settlement through the late 19th century, when new quarries and other uses threatened to degrade the landscape.
An early, influential manifestation of the dawning conservation movement, the long campaign to protect the Palisades drew great popular support and powerful champions. At the turn of the 20th century, a push led by the New Jersey Federation of Women’s Clubs resulted in the creation of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission by New York and New Jersey governors Theodore Roosevelt and Foster Voorhees. An article in the The New York Times on January 5, 1900, reported favorably on Governor Roosevelt’s action to preserve the Palisades from “spoliation of this rare scenic gift which nature has bestowed upon the metropolis.” Later, in the early 1930s, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., acquired and donated the area protected as a park today, with the specific objective of saving the viewshed. But LG’s proposed tower would ruin this viewshed.
In a recent New York Times article, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., commented that building LG’s tower in its proposed form is like trying to “build a high-rise next to Yellowstone. It’s a national issue. It is so important to maintain landscapes in cities, so people who can’t afford to go out to the national parks will be able to experience the majestic beauty of the American wilderness in their backyards.”3
Coalition members are now waiting for opponents to file briefs in support of the town’s zoning decision and to find out whether the court will hear oral arguments on appeal.
1. Three separate appeals are pending before the New Jersey Appellate Division. Two individuals, Carol Jacoby and Marcia Davis, filed the first two lawsuits in Superior Court. After the trial but before the Superior Court’s decision, they were joined by a group of intervenors, including the New Jersey Federation of Women’s Clubs and Scenic Hudson. The New Jersey Federation of Women’s Clubs led efforts to secure the area as parkland in 1900.
2. The new headquarters plan also includes two additional wings that would each be 55 feet tall, and a parking garage that would be 40 feet tall. Part of the rationale offered by LG was that building the tower would make it easier to obtain LEED certification for the new building. In addition, the smaller footprint of the tower would allow much more of the 27-acre site to be landscaped as green space.
3. Robin Pogrebin, “New Forces Join Lawsuit Fighting Palisades Tower,” New York Times, Jan. 23, 2014, at C2.