When buildings get to be of a certain age, they often take on historic significance. But is it necessary for that significance to overshadow the time-honored principles of limited government, individual liberty, and private property rights? That was the question recently put to voters in Owosso, Mich.—and those voters resoundingly chose America's historic founding principles over an ill-considered city plan to regulate private homes of historic significance.
In December 2000, the Owosso 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 government coercion. Residents soon discovered it was to be the latter.
The ordinance granted a government "historic district commission" regulatory power over any work plans that would alter the appearance of any private home within the boundaries of the district. The fine print read, "A permit shall be obtained before any work affecting the exterior appearance of a resource is performed within a historic 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, when many of the historic homes were originally built, is not always verifiable. Since what is historically acceptable is largely subjective, there is plenty of room for differing and arbitrary interpretations. Could drafty, outdated windows be replaced with newer, more energy efficient ones? It depended on which city official exasperated homeowners asked.
To ensure the ordinance passed, supporters used clever propaganda to make it appear that there was broad public approval of the plan. Before the council vote, proponents mailed postcards to households that were within the proposed district, instructing residents to mail the card back only if they were in favor of the proposal. Apparently understanding the bureaucratic hassle the ordinance would create, the city also quietly exempted from the proposed rules one of its own properties that would fall within the district.
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?" The thought of the city forcing homeowners to pay to dismantle unapproved changes and pay the cost of meeting approved ones only fueled the resentment.
The city floated the idea of a property tax credit to entice residents into accepting the district. Michigan law allows a credit to partially offset the additional cost of maintaining a home to historic district commission standards. But not every home in the district was eligible, and getting the credit was fraught with red tape. Many homeowners publicly stated that they did not want any part of the tax credit with all its accompanying strings. It wasn't "free money from the state" as proponents argued, and it seemed to many to be an inefficient incentive for preservation.
Preservation of historic buildings need not be accomplished by coercive government programs; in fact, historic district-based approaches can unintentionally have the opposite effect. As reported by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, commissioners in the city of Midland have made the permitting process there so onerous that one citizen gave up trying to fix her historic home's leaky roof, saying, "I will let my house fall down before I deal with those people again."
On Aug. 14, 2001, Owosso residents voted to repeal the eight-month-old historic district ordinance by a margin of 70-30 percent. In doing so, they sent coercive preservationists a powerful message: We don't need the cops to preserve historic landmarks. Perhaps, as suggested by the Mackinac Center, it's time for the Legislature to take another look at the laws that authorize coercive historic districts in the first place.
(Mark D. Owen led the effort to repeal Owosso's historic district ordinance and in November 2001 was elected to the Owosso City Council. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author is cited.)