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Historic Districts Protect Your Property Rights

Some people will tell you that if you live in a historic district or the community is thinking about making your neighborhood a historic district, the world is coming to an end. They say things like, “It’s nothing but a left wing conspiracy to take my property rights away” or “The paint police are coming to tell us why we can’t cover our old house with plastic siding”.

For 35 years I’ve been hearing these types of arguments from coast to coast. In the Midwest where I live, people are even a bit more property rights oriented than most folks, but come on!

Historic preservation is nothing more than preserving or conserving our built environment. What could possibly be more conservative? Our country is singular in its belief that somehow old is bad and new is better. In Europe they build things to last and maintain them.

A house is a huge investment and not to preserve or maintain it is wasteful, arrogant and financially irresponsible. Yet, we continue to tear down the old and build new or create places to park so we don’t have to walk a half block to the store or church.

For over 50 years the national preservation movement has been promoting the idea that there is value in old houses and neighborhoods. As our society becomes more environmentally aware and green, recycling or preserving these classic homes becomes all the more important and truly reasonable.

First of all, let’s define exactly what a historic district is. Too often people get the vapors about these districts without understanding what the designations really mean to them, their neighbors and the community at large.

A Nationally Registered Historic District is a designation given to historic neighborhoods based on a survey of the geographic area and the structures within them. The National Park Service through the State Preservation Office bestows this honor to the community.

The majority of the properties need to be over 50 years old and the area needs to be an area that was clearly defined in it’s development and how that ties into the historic progression of the community. For instance, was it one of the first street car commuting neighborhoods? Maybe it was the first residential neighborhood off the downtown. Even a neighborhood of 1950’s ranch houses could be eligible if the architecture represents an excellent example of our recent past.

Too often people think that only the big robber baron mansions are truly historic. An Italianate worker cottage has just as much connection to the progression of the community as a banker’s 10,000 square foot Tudor mansion. Most of our early neighborhoods have a variety of house sizes, styles and economic strata. Typically you see a banker’s house on the corner, a shopkeeper’s house down the block and the cottage where the janitor raised his kids. Everyone lived together. Kids from all backgrounds played together and actually got to know one another, understand one another.

Today the cornfield housing developments have $500,000 houses in this area or $250,00 homes in this drainage ditch. This certainly doesn’t promote diversity or understanding. So, living in a Nationally Registered Historic District with tree lined streets, diverse housing stock, parks, and the ability to actually walk to the store or church becomes a much more desirable notion for many people.

The one thing you must know is that there are no government controls in a National Register Historic District. A slumlord can decimate a house, churches can tear down historic houses for parking lots and you can slather your home with plastic siding and windows, no controls.

The only way the City, State or Federal government can control what you do to a historic house in a national district is through building, rental and zoning codes or if you take any federal money to rehab or restore your property. It’s that simple, no paint police.

On the other hand, a Local Historic District does have some minor control over what you do to the outside of your house. Communities decide to create historic preservation ordinances, which allow neighborhoods to be designated as local historic districts or individual properties to be local landmarks. The criteria for this designation are basically the same as the national districts.

The main difference is, the community says if we want people to rehab and renovate these classic homes they are going to want to know their investment is protected. As a community we see value in protecting our historic built environment and so we have some minor regulations designed to maintain the exterior character of the houses and neighborhood.

Some of these include not wrapping your house with plastic siding, installing plastic windows, enclosing open porches and fence design. Rarely are paint colors controlled and certainly nothing inside the house.

Does this sound familiar to you folks living in cornfield housing developments? Yep, you all have covenants in your neighborhoods that are generally much more restrictive than local historic district design guidelines. Oh, but I forgot, people living in the central city historic neighborhoods are second class citizens and don’t deserve to secure their investment, only you get to do that. After all your property rights are at stake, right?

“Hey wait a minute Bob, it cost much more to preserve than replace!” Well, that’s the big lie in America. Preserving original materials cost less than replacing them. When it doesn’t, it’s because the contractor or worker has no competition or is charging you for preservation 101 to learn how to do it on your house. Schools have opened across the country teaching cost effective hands-on preservation techniques to homeowners and contractors. Local historic preservation commissions and not-for-profits are taking advantage of grants to send their members to training as well as bringing experts to your community to teach these skills.

Remember, the reason they call them replacement materials is that you have to replace them over and over again. If the local historic preservation commission requires you to keep those original multi-paned windows made from precious old growth wood, don’t whine about it, get them restored.

It cost less to make an original window more energy efficient than installing a plastic replacement window. They operate more easily, have all the lead paint removed and yes, they can be cleaned from inside the house.

Living in a local historic district isn’t a burden on your property rights. It can however increase the value of your home, be more energy efficient and add to your quality of life by having rich textures and colors around you as well as a diverse group of interesting and interested people.