Historic District Horror Stories

Homeowners can't even replace 108-year-old windows that don't lock

In 2011, Louis Breskman put up a wooden fence on his Ann Arbor property that was within a historic district. Breskman said neighbors had similar fences and that since the fence was wooden, it blended in with the other historic features of the neighborhood.

Breskman failed to get a permit for a “certificate of appropriateness," however, and when he retroactively applied for it, the city’s historic district commission denied his request.

Breskman said he was threatened with a $5,000 fine and would have to hire an attorney to fight the case. So he took the fence down.

“I wasn’t doing anything that was detrimental to the neighborhood,” Breskman said this month, adding that wooden fences have been used for hundreds of years. “That’s why I put it up. I didn’t think it was going to be an issue. … It doesn’t seem like there are clear rules to what is considered historical.”

Breskman isn’t the only Ann Arbor resident who has contested rulings by the historic commission, or felt that it was overreaching. A Freedom of Information Act filed uncovered numerous concerns from the city’s residents that led to official complaints.

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Two bills in the Michigan Legislature would affect how historic districts operate. House Bill 5232 and Senate Bill 720 would make it so two-thirds of property owners would have to approve a move to create a historic district; the majority of voters in that community would have to approve the restrictions imposed by the district. The bills would also limit historic districts to 10 years before having to be renewed by another vote.

“Our bill to modernize a law written 45 years ago strikes the right balance between protecting private property owners’ rights and historic preservation,” said Rep. Chris Afendoulis, R-Grand Rapids Township, in a press release. “This will help many communities maintain their historic identity while ensuring private property owners have a greater voice.”

Historic districts generally receive positive coverage in local media.

Take, for example, the first few paragraphs in a recent article in the Ann Arbor News about historic districts. It reported:

With roughly 1,800 properties included in 14 historic districts, it's no secret Ann Arbor takes historic preservation seriously.

Those designations over the years have protected the integrity and charm of some of the city's oldest neighborhoods from the Old West Side to the Old Fourth Ward, where blocks of original homes from the 1800s and early 1900s remain intact.

They've also helped maintain some of the original character of many parts of the downtown, including the Main Street area.

The Detroit Free Press also chimed in on the legislation to reform historic districts.

Staff writer John Gallagher wrote: “It’s true that over the years we’ve heard some low-level complaints about how tough local historic boards can be in protecting the integrity of their districts. But this proposed legislation goes way too far in trying to correct a so-called problem that is hardly a problem at all.”

But there is another side to historic districts that involves a potential infringement on property owner rights.

In 2008, the city of Ann Arbor's historic district denied a homeowner’s request to replace three windows. The homeowner said the windows were severely deteriorated and wanted to replace them with wood windows that replicated the existing ones.

In the letter explaining the denial, Jill Thacher, the city planner and historic preservation coordinator, described what needed to be done: "Deteriorated historic features will be repaired rather than replaced. Where the severity of deterioration requires replacement of a distinctive feature, the new feature will match the old in design, color, texture, and where possible, materials. Replacement of missing features will be substantiated by documentary and physical evidence."

Homeowner Heather O’Neal wrote in a 2008 letter to the state’s historic preservation review board: “Decisions like this diminish the desire of people to live in the neighborhood and discourage them from buying and/or maintaining property in historic districts."

In 2008, a homeowner reported having 108-year-old windows “beyond reasonable repair.” The windows didn’t line up and wouldn’t lock, according to the homeowner.

In a letter to the state, the homeowner said one of the city’s historic district commissioners came to the house to look at the window and stated that they “weren’t that bad.”

The commission denied the request to replace the window.

Prudence Spink, the homeowner, told the state in her appeal that many other buildings in the neighborhood had replacement windows similar to what she wanted to install.

The homeowner feared she could be in Catch 22 situation: “unable to comply with the housing code with respect to windows by complying with the mandate of the historical commission to keep the old, deteriorated windows.”

In 2007, the city’s historic district commission demanded that a homeowner remove vinyl replacement windows he had already installed. The windows he removed were not the original windows, according to the homeowner, and were a safety risk to the people who occupied the house because they were too small to provide an escape.

Ann Arbor Mayor Chris Taylor didn’t respond to an email seeking comment for this story.

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