Preserving our right to preserve: What proposed historic district legislation could mean locally

If you want to find a community that is adamantly against historic districts, the Ann Arbor area isn't exactly the place to start looking. After all, with 14 historic districts in Ann Arbor and a sizable one in Ypsilanti, the area has preservationists in spades. For a good example, you might have to go back in time, to pre-2013 Mackinac Island, a place that seemed to disprove the need for the preservation protections made possible by Michigan's nearly 50-year-old historic district enabling legislation.

At that time, Mackinac Island was, as it remains today, one of the state's most popular tourist attractions, and though its appeal is based entirely on its commitment to maintaining an authentic historic experience, it had no historic districts in place. Apparently, they just didn't need them. Apparently. But in reality, 100 historic buildings were demolished between 1970 and 2000. And when a 125-year-old cottage was demolished to make way for a new hotel in 2011, those with a stake in Mackinac Island were spurred into action. Two historic districts were formed, and the first act of the resulting historic commission was to block a similar plan by the same developer to demolish a historic downtown building in order to build a hotel.

That's exactly why, explains Dr. Ted Ligibel, director of Eastern Michigan University's historic preservation program and chair of the Michigan State Historic Preservation Review Board. "In this country, nothing is sacred," he says "because we are a country based on private property rights, that pretty much trumps everything."

And yet there are long-term economic and cultural value to preserving historic properties that future property owners may not all recognize or prioritize. Thus, if a majority of property owners in an area agree to the need to protect their neighborhood, they can create a local historic district governed by a local board that can enforce regulations or guide development in exactly the way those local folks see fit.

And that has been that for 46 years. But now, pending legislation in Lansing could dramatically change the process by which those historic districts, from Ann Arbor to Mackinac Island, are created and maintained, changing the balance of power between the individual owners' property rights and their neighbors. Here's what could happen, is happening now and what it means for the future of preservation locally.

Preservation pros

Other than to preserve our sentimental attachments to days gone by, why do historic districts matter in Washtenaw County?

"At the root of it is property value," says Ligibel, "and that very much is an economic driver. People are looking at it as way to protect their properties."

While no one may argue that some of Ann Arbor's most expensive residential neighborhoods need much more help maintaining their property values, you only have to look a little further east to see where the a historic district has made a real, needed impact.

"Ypsilanti is a good case in point," Ligibel says. "That whole historic district has rebounded significantly from where it was says in the 60s or early 70s. There is block after block after block of residences that people have invested in."

And then there's tourism. Ann Arbor city council member Kirk Westphal points to Main Street as a prime example of the community value of historic districts. "I'm sure we would have lost a lot more of our historic fabric to the wrecking ball had folks not had the foresight to recognize historic districts in their downtown," he says. "You can just tell by the pedestrian traffic on the weekend and the success of certain retailers or restaurants that people — both townies and visitors — gravitate toward the more historic sections. They just have the most soul."

That's not to say that all historic districts have terrific policies in place that always drive up property values. In fact, because every district has its own set of regulations — some strictly enforcing everything down to paint color, and others simply offering design guidelines — it's difficult to quantify what makes for good and bad policy. Not only are the regulations different everywhere, but the needs of each community is different; what could be great policy in Mackinac Island could make no sense in Saline.

"The beauty of this system is that its a democracy," Ligibel says. "Because it's so local, each community decides for itself, and things change over time."

Preservation peeves

So why would anyone change that system, as the pending legislation intends? Well, it's first important to note who is pushing for the changes — and who isn't. According to Ann Arbor city council member Kirk Westphal, it's not coming from any local property owners he's spoken with, "which is why this whole legislation push is so mysterious to many of us," he says. "I suppose there could be a point at which historic districts are overused, but…I've never heard of that perception here or in any community."

Even those that might roll their eyes at the idea that some of Ann Arbor's most expensive neighborhoods have any need — or right — to have protections in place that further boost their property values, Westphal says it's all about balance.

"In the non-historic areas, the community has to make an effort to allow for different types of housing to evolve or you do end up restricting supply," he says. And while Ann Arbor does have a large number of historic districts, Westphal says he sees room in non-historic areas for that housing variety to continue to develop.

Statewide, the Michigan Municipal League hasn't heard many more complaints about the current historic district process than Westphal has locally. "There hasn't been a human cry for changes," says Chris Hackbarth, director of state affairs with MML. "That being said, any act you have that is that age, there are opportunities to look back and say, 'Are there best practices that can be codified in the law?'"

What room is there for change? Hackbarth says he has heard one community express concern that the current process didn't allow affected residents to properly intervene in a historic district establishment that is proceeding in a way with which they disagree.

So who does want massive changes? Apparently, property owners who are not currently members of historic districts. The House version bill was introduced by a Grand Rapids-area legislator that has none in his district. Mlive traced the origins of the legislation to a Grand Rapids neighborhood effort — and failure — to create a historic district to protect their area from further demolition. Though some might say their lack of success is proof the system works, apparently local property owners weren't satisfied.

Regardless, the goal of those pushing the bill are, according to the Detroit Free Press is to protect property owners from being included in a historic district without their consent or knowledge, and from being subject to onerous restrictions.

The potential impacts of legislation change

How so? Though the legislation is undergoing changes, Hackbarth says the original language proposed changing the law in a number of ways. First, it would have made every historic district expire after ten years and require a city-wide vote to renew it — which would actually give less control over the fate of the district to the property owners inside it. The result would be asking residents of Ann Arbor's Pittsfield neighborhood to give Old West Side property owners permission to keep their historic district.

No district could be established without having two-thirds of the residential property owners doing a petition saying they wanted it. Then a two-thirds vote of the council. "Huge hurdles when it comes to regulation of land use within a community's boundaries." It would also take control of the appeals process away from the state historic preservation board and into the hands of city councils, who, according to Hackbarth aren't always prepared to handle the technical aspects of such appeals.

So far, MML has had positive conversations with the legislation's sponsors, and so far the language regarding a ten-year expiration and citywide votes has been removed.

"That feedback is being listened to," Hackbarth says. "Now the conversation has moved to those other things that the historic preservation community and municipalities are looking at in terms of concerns with the legislation."

While the final version of the bill is yet to come, many in Washtenaw County and around the state will certainly be keeping a close eye on how it could potentially affect their historic districts. Which is no small deal, says Westphal.

"When you talk to people about what places they love to visit, invariably, where they like to go has history," he says, "and I think historic districts play an incredibly important role in keeping the soul in communities."

Natalie Burg is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and senior writer at Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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