Beware the History Police
Principles Are Worth Preserving, Too
JULY 01, 2002 by LAWRENCE W. REED
Preserving historic homes and buildings can be a good thing. Early 1900s storefronts, centennial homes with turrets and gables, and old gas-lighted public buildings are among the many aged structures that offer wide appeal if refurbished faithfully. Most people appreciate old things that are scarce but well-kept because they educate us, remind us of our past, increase the value of property, and are often aesthetically attractive as well.
It is for those reasons and more that individuals, foundations, and organizations are actively preserving history all the time—often without incentives, decrees, or oversight from any level of government. But when radical preservationists wield political power over property owners, even the best of intentions often produce harmful outcomes.
Congress stuck its meddling, constitutionally dubious nose into historic preservation in 1966, and with increasing frequency ever since, private property rights have been imperiled. That was the year lawmakers enacted the National Historic Preservation Act, mandating that each state establish a State Historic Preservation Office. In turn, many states have granted authority to local governments to create “historic districts” for the purpose of regulating changes to private property in those areas. The idea is that public oversight will ensure historic preservation of private property, but two examples from my state of Michigan demonstrate what a nightmare these historic districts can easily become.
In 1996 my hometown of Midland created its “West Main Street Historic District,” an area incorporating 24 properties and including homes originally constructed as early as 1874. To many people living in the district, the results have ranged anywhere from a considerable waste of time to what one resident describes as “the worst thing I’ve ever experienced in my life.”
At a recent city council meeting several district residents told story after story of how ridiculous, costly, time-consuming, and intimidating it is to apply for a “Certificate of Appropriateness” from the Historic District Commission (HDC) to improve their homes. Observers learned that the HDC is under no obligation, and makes no attempt, to advise or assist property owners. The burden is on the owner to prove that any proposed improvement is historically accurate, even when no historic evidence exists. Decisions by the commission are often arbitrary, arrogant, petty, and even vindictive. At least one of its members made substantial changes to his own property before agitating for creation of the HDC; he now bullies his neighbors with his police power as a history commissioner. People who were once amicable neighbors now spy on one another, reporting possible violations to the authorities.
At the same meeting the response from HDC members was to reaffirm how important they are and how hard they work. Paul Arends, a district resident, put it this way: “It is true that the commissioners have long meetings. They do discuss and approve work. They certainly follow up on unapproved changes. There is no doubt that they are busy. Unfortunately, there is not a single bit of evidence that they are effective. They failed to demonstrate how their stated objectives are advanced by what they actually do.”
One of Arends’s neighbors is an 85-year-old woman who has lived in her home for 35 years. She found working with the HDC so distressing that she decided to live with the ongoing damage caused by roof leaks rather than seek approval for correcting the problem. “I will let my house fall down before I deal with those people again,” she commonly says. Score one for the history police, but not for history or for preservation.
The HDC is meant to prevent “bad things” from happening. But these “bad things” are extremely unlikely because of the property’s value to the private owners, which is largely related to the historic significance of their homes. That value had risen substantially before the HDC was ever formed. As Arends explains, “The value of homes (like antique cars or most other things) goes down as they age, bottoms out, then begins to rise as the surviving specimens of a certain era become rare.” It is true, as HDC supporters warn, that many old homes have been demolished or remodeled beyond recognition. But that’s what makes the ones that remain in good historic condition so valuable.
The People Say No
In December 2000 the Owosso, Michigan, City Council passed the “Oliver Street Historic District and Environs” ordinance by a 6-1 vote. The stated goals of the ordinance included safeguarding the heritage of the city and strengthening the local economy—lofty but superficial language that almost anyone could support. Where the rubber hit the road was in how these things were to be done—that is, whether through voluntary means or through heavy-handed edicts. Residents soon discovered it was to be the latter.
The ordinance granted a commission power over any work plans that would alter the outside appearance of any private home within the boundaries of the district. Exactly what kind of exterior work would be permissible quickly became a point of much confusion, if not contention. What parts of a house were made of or looked like a century ago is not always verifiable.
The more they learned about the new ordinance, the more local residents became angry. “We own the property, pay the taxes on it, and incur the expense of keeping it up,” said former councilman Burton Fox. “Why should it suddenly be up to a committee to determine what changes we may or may not make to our homes?”
So last August Owosso residents voted to repeal the eight-month-old historic district ordinance 70–30 percent. A repeal leader, councilman Mark Owen, sums up the vote this way: “Keep your cotton-pickin’ fingers off our history and our property.”
Restoration and preservation are possible only when individuals put their own money, blood, sweat, and tears behind their passion for history and/or their desire to boost the value of what they own. The best defense against erosion of historic value is the very personal, bottom-line interests of the property owners themselves.
Moreover, there remains one powerful marketplace tool for promoting preservation that political agitators and control freaks don’t make time to fully appreciate: If they want to see a piece of property preserved, they can band together and buy it. Honest people do it all the time; dishonest people hire politicians to do their dirty work for them.
Like certain buildings, the time-honored principles of limited government, individual liberty, and private property rights are also of historic significance and are worth preserving. Those noble values get quashed when radical preservationists prefer police action to voluntary action.