Monday, December 2, 2013

“Nobody is telling me what color I can paint my house!”

The creation of local historic districts, and the subsequent enforcement of historic preservation laws, creates a special set of challenges for preservation planners.  Buildings and structures on the National Register of Historic Places are afforded little—if any—protection against inappropriate alterations or even demolition.  Protection comes on the municipal level when towns and cities adopt a bylaw or ordinance such as MGL Chapter 40C Massachusetts Historic Districts Act or similar statutes in other jurisdictions.  Once a city or town adopts the law they can move toward the creation of local historic districts (LHD) that are governed by an historic district commission (HDC.)

Getting property owners to agree to an LHD is a daunting challenge, no doubt. Culturally, we're programmed to resist and question any infringement of our rights by government, especially the suggestion of someone telling us what we can or cannot do with our property.  And HDCs are government entities telling people what they can and cannot do with their properties.  We cannot ignore that fact—it must be dealt with head on.  There is a statement that could be made to the building owners within proposed LHDs everywhere:  "This isn't about you—we know you'll do the right thing—it’s about what someone else might do some day."  This appeals to the building owner because you're mitigating any concern that the purpose of the LHD is to tell him what he can or can't do. 

And you're planting the seed of concern: "What happens when the people next door sell some day and the new owner wants to do something hideous to the fa├žade of the house?" Or, what happens when the new owner of the charming block of stores next to your business wants to knock it down and build a new Dunkin’ Donuts? Isn't that the purpose anyway, to prevent the wrong thing from happening in the future, not correcting or changing existing conditions?  Theoretically, the building and home owners in these areas like old houses and structures and appreciate the charm and character that they possess.  Hopefully they also understand and appreciate the economic value this adds to properties in their neighborhood.  Build on that. 

Public perception of historic districts and commissions appears to be the greatest hurdle preservation planners have to overcome when creating and overseeing LHDs.  How often have we heard the rally cry, “Nobody is telling me what color I can paint my house!” yet HDCs generally don’t dictate color choices. The best way to counter such myths and misconceptions is through transparency of actions and clear, wide-reaching communication to the public.  The internet is good vehicle for communicating that process.  Every LHD needs design guidelines and the Town of Brookline has an exemplar:

The Historical Commission in the Town of Ipswich has a website that should be closely studied:

The home page of the Ipswich website is a one-stop directory to all of the resources and information that home and building owners need to access.  It is also an engaging site that pulls the viewer in with great pictures and wonderful local history as well as pertinent, contemporary information.  The charm and value of antiquity is present here and viewers are compelled to buy into it.  Increasing public awareness of historic preservation is the best way to increase public appreciation of historic preservation.  Click HERE for an article on this very subject.  Selling people on the importance of historic preservation is critical, as even old home enthusiasts can occasionally be recalcitrant in their support.
Our society is pretty good at accepting the need for zoning laws, permits and building code, but somehow restrictions due to historic preservation send folks over the edge.  Why?  Once a building is protected within an LHD it can’t be inappropriately altered or demolished.  That's the law.  Period. Don't like it? Sell it and move on.  Better yet, why buy a property in an LHD in the first place? The mindset that an owner should be able to do whatever he wants with a building simply because "he owns it" is ridiculous.

Should he be able to hire an unlicensed, uninsured contractor to throw together a set of ramshackle stairs without a permit? Why not? He owns it.  

Should he be able to make changes and alterations that violate code? Why not? He owns it. 

Should he be able to dump toxic waste in the basement? Why not? He owns it. 

Can he pile as many tenants inside as he wants, and provide one crummy toilet and no fire protection? Why not? He owns it.

Just because you own a house or other building doesn’t mean the law be damned, like it or not.  Saying a building owner should be able to do whatever they want with their building is tantamount to saying that one should be able to mistreat a pet--because they own it--or burn money because they can. Anyone who thinks that way shouldn't be allowed to have a pet or doesn't deserve to be rich. Same goes for historically significant buildings. The fact that one fails to recognize, appreciate and respect that significance is neither here nor there. It is illegal to abuse your dog or destroy US currency. And it’s illegal to alter or demolish a building in an LHD without HDC approval.
Photo credits:  Carole Osterink, The Gossips of Rivertown, except the historic photo of the Upper Depot in Hudson, NY, credited to City of Hudson Historian Pat Fenoff and the contemporary image of the same building taken by international photographer Lynn Davis.