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Guest commentary

Historic districts give Michigan cities character, so no need to change law

Barry LaRue lives in a restored 1858 Italianate home in Ypsilanti's historic district and along with his wife has restored several historic homes over the years.

Barry LaRue lives in a restored 1858 Italianate home in Ypsilanti’s historic district and along with his wife has restored several historic homes over the years.

Rep. Chris Afendoulis has introduced a bill in Lansing that will substantially change with way historic districts are formed in Michigan. Those of us who live in a historic district and enjoy its benefits are concerned about the results of enacting sweeping changes to existing law.

As a resident of the Ypsilanti historic district since its inception in 1978, the owner of a succession of historic homes all in the district, and a part-time restorer of other homes in the district, I think I can speak with authority on the benefits of preserving the history and architecture of the core of our community.

Ypsilanti was founded in 1823 and is four square miles in area. Our historic district, adopted in 1978 and enlarged in 1980, contains approximately 750 structures. Residents, many of whom lived within the proposed boundaries, conducted an education campaign and compiled the requisite inventory to allow the district to be formed.

Our district contains all major architectural styles of the 19th and early 20th century, and encompasses two downtown retail areas. Our preservation ordinance has allowed the slow, steady improvement of our district with minimal negative repercussions. The normal changes in ownership over the years allow new owners to gauge their desire to own property subject to some additional restrictions.

House Bill 5232 and its partner, Senate Bill 720, will essentially gut PA 169 of 1970, which established such districts in Michigan. The highlights of the proposed requirements are as follows:

  • Preliminary approval of a proposed historic district would have to be obtained from 2/3 of property owners.
  • A local unit of government could, at its discretion, introduce and pass or reject an ordinance to establish a historic district, which would become operative only if a majority of electors in the local unit also approves the establishment of a historic district.
  • It would allow local commissions to ignore the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for rehabilitation
  • It would allow the cost of appropriate rehabilitation or restoration to be taken into account.
  • And it would sunset – end – existing historic districts after 10 years, requiring a new application process to have them restored.

Zoning is one bulwark of local control. Each community elects their own representatives and appoints their own planning commissions, zoning boards and other such oversight bodies, and residents not only have the ability to vote their representatives out of office every term, but the members of boards and commissions change with the whims of the governing body. This ensures that local ordinances, including historic districts, are responsive to the local community.

The makers of this bill claim that “property rights” are at stake, but specific instances have not been cited. Guidelines in historic districts encourage retaining distinctive features. The rules also generally allow modern features, such as decks and sliding door walls, if they are in the rear of the home, for instance. There are safeguards already in place to allow for exceptions, based on either life/safety or the public good.

Allowing rehab costs to be taken into account opens the door to applicants claiming that a cheap vinyl window is the only thing they can afford, rather than one that fits the building’s style and character.

The homeowners and residents of our district enjoy the benefits it affords. National studies indicate that similar buildings in historic districts appreciate at a faster rate than those just outside the boundaries.

My discussions with homeowners in our community has led me to believe that the most criticism leveled at our historic district often comes from those living outside the borders of it and not those subject to it.

I subscribe to the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” school of thought. PA 169 of 1970 works well and should remain as-is. The act was passed under Gov. William Milliken, a Michigan leader whose moderate stance on a variety of issues is sorely missed. Let’s actually live by the theme of the state’s Pure Michigan campaign. History is one of the things that makes our state unique and brings tourists and economic vitality to Michigan.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

5 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. ***

    So what is behind this? Not too hard to figure out that some developer is angry because they can build something new or change something that is already
    in a historic district so they found a legislator to be their mouthpiece to promote this change. Special interests running or trying to run govt. it is a familiar tune.

  2. ***

    Should read “can’t” build. Bridge really needs a way for someone to go back to the original comment to make these kind of corrections.

  3. Irony

    What I find interesting is that new subdivisions and their homeowners associations are usually FAR more restrictive than historic districts. For example, Ann Arbor’s historic districts do not have any paint color restrictions, but most HOA’s dictate that your house always be beige, that you never park your boat in your driveway, and God forbid you plant a vegetable garden!

  4. Barry Visel

    I’m guessing the bottom line here has to do with tax breaks, incentives or deductions, but the article doesn’t really explain. It would be helpful if the author would explain what would be lost by the proposed changes.

  5. Tam

    How do we get rid of term limits? They seemed like such a good idea before, but now I am amazed at some of the stuff that our state legislators come up with when they know they are at the end of the term limit line –

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