Friday, June 27, 2008

The Problem with Historic Preservation, Part 1

No one objects to historic preservation efforts that are voluntary, and funded directly by the folks who are doing the preserving and stand to benefit the most. Freedom-loving people should object, however, when such efforts turn coercive and compulsory, placing the power to make such decisions in the hands of entities or individuals other than the property owners, and when the preservationists begin reaching into the taxpayers’ pockets to feed and water their aesthetic hobbyhorses.

Most efforts to designate historic preservation zones begin innocuously enough: Some self-styled local historian or group suggests that one neighborhood or another merits special recognition for its charm and longevity. Many homeowners naturally are flattered to think themselves living in a local “landmark,” and hope such a designation might pump up their housing values, so they eagerly go along, while others may be wary, recognizing a latent threat to their property rights. The problem arises when the former faction attempts to drag along the latter group unwillingly -- which is how most of these initially innocent scenarios play out.

What begins in a spirit of voluntarism ends in coercion, with a majority in the neighborhood voting to approve a historic zone over the objections of a minority. Powers to dictate remodeling and maintenance decisions then are vested in an appointed board of preservationist busy-bodies, which must be consulted on most significant changes to a property. This way lies petty despotism. The facade of history is maintained, while historically-important American values such as property rights fall to ruin.

The trajectory I chart can be seen, in snapshot form, in three recent news posts I came across. The first story --
-- illustrates the early, innocent stage of the process, replete with reassurances to property owners that designation is voluntary and will not impact their property rights. Folks in Fargo’s Oak Grove area are proud of their neighborhood and simply want to see if it merits listing on a national registry. Many may not know what they're getting into.

Fast forward five or six years and some of those living in Oak Grove may find themselves voted into a historic zone by their neighbors, against their wills, and the city of Fargo’s Historic Preservation Commission, whose members are unelected and unaccountable, exercising veto power over what they do with their property. A quick read of these two stories -- and -- will bring home the point.

The first column was written by a woman who’s been fighting a designation for her neighborhood, against an implacable gang of preservationists in Greeley, Colorado.
In the second (somewhat Orwellian) situation, we see a historic preservation commission assuming greater and greater powers, even over homeowners who decline to participate. To deal with the rebels, a new historic preservation ordinance “creates two classes of historic sites: Class A and Class B,” according to the story. “Class A sites, in which the owner accepts the designation, are subject to stricter limitations on how the property can be modified than Class B sites, in which the owner declined the designation. However, both classes of sites will still need commission approval in order for any structure to be demolished in whole or in part.”
The commission is in control, in other words, whether you fall into "Class A" or "Class B."

What this country needs is another sort of historic preservation movement -- one aimed at preserving and upholding the rights of individuals against the tyranny of historic preservationists.

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