BY BENJAMIN J. GOHS, EDITOR
As was first reported locally by the Boyne City Gazette back on Feb. 3, some major changes have been proposed to the State of Michigan’s Local Historic District Act.
Last week, shortly after the proposal was amended by its sponsors, the Boyne City Commission unanimously rebuked HB 5232 and SB 720 in a letter to Lansing.
“These bills propose some pretty significant changes to the act in that it would change how districts were developed, maintained and regulated,” Boyne City Planning Director Scott McPherson told the Boyne City Commission on Tuesday March 1.
“These changes, in my opinion, were for the purpose of reducing the authority of the districts and reducing districts throughout the state.”
He added, “They look to be somewhat politically motivated but that’s just my observation.”
Supporters of HB 5232 and SB 720 say the measures will increase local control and protect property rights; opponents claim the move would jeopardize historic assets and decrease local control.
Opponents like the Michigan Historic Preservation Network (MHPN) say Michigan’s historic places are important economic drivers that attract other businesses, tourists and residents as well as enhancing the areas where they exist.
House Bill 5232, sponsored by Michigan State Rep. Chris Afendoulis (R-Grand Rapids Township), and Senate Bill 720, sponsored by Sen. Peter MacGregor (R-Rockford), originally would have made the following changes:
Afendoulis and MacGregor say current law gives too much power to “preservation activists.”
But, in a Wednesday Feb. 24 press release, Afendoulis announced several revisions to his original changes after speaking with stakeholders from across the state.
On Feb. 24, the state’s Local Government House Committee voted unanimously on a substitute House Bill 5232 which, according to the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, removed two major provisions: the 10-year sunset on local historic districts and the general electorate vote of the public in establishing a local historic district.
“However, other language was introduced that is in many ways more problematic than the first bill,” the group said.
“The proposals no longer require a vote of all residents of a municipality to approve a proposed district,” Afendoulis’ release stated. “In addition, the revised proposal eliminates the requirement for a renewal every 10 years for an existing historic district. This issue had generated great concern when the bill was first introduced.”
Also changed: “Two-thirds of property owners within an existing historic district must petition to eliminate an existing district, along with two-thirds of the local unit of government. This revision makes it more difficult to eliminate an existing district than current law. The same two-thirds threshold also applies to the creation of a new historic district.”
According to Afendoulis, local governments will decide the character of existing historic districts. An example he cites: “If a neighborhood wants to allow energy efficient windows that look historically appropriate but are constructed from modern materials that will save money, they can choose to do so under the updated proposals.”
Modernizing Historic Districts
According to the proposed substitute bill, property owners could appeal decisions of local historic boards at local units of government instead of appealing decisions in Lansing, as is currently the law.
“Modernizing Michigan’s Historic Districts Act will protect property owners’ rights, local control and historic preservation—and the revisions announced today will strengthen our efforts,” Afendoulis said. “We have listened to input from many stakeholders, from home owners and businesses to historic preservation advocates. We included their ideas into our revised proposal, and we now look forward to continuing our work with many interested stakeholders to pass a law that balances property rights and local control with historic preservation in an accountable, transparent way.”
He added, “To additionally ensure property owners’ voices are heard, the proposals also require that panels determining the creation of historic districts include property owners, construction experts and local elected officials, in addition to preservation experts.”
According to the current law, the majority of these panels must consist of preservation advocates but doesn’t identify other “specific stakeholders.”
The City’s Letter
Boyne City officials approved a letter in opposition of the bills to be sent to Lansing.
In the letter, the city states that the existing legislation is valuable to the entire community.
“The system we have is not broken—there is no need for the amendments proposed in HB 5232 and SB 720 and they have gone too far,” it states in the city’s letter. “Their sponsors are calling these bills ‘modernization’ bills but they are not that. These proposed amendments completely change the way the local historic designation process and district administration works in response to several mistaken assumptions.”
The letter goes on to say that the proposed bills would, “clearly threaten all local historic districts statewide.”
Boyne City Manager Michael Cain prefaced board discussion by telling commissioners that, when he was originally hired, that city board told him historic preservation was a priority.
“They wanted to make sure that Boyne stayed Boyne, and I think Boyne City has a good record of doing that and I think it’s only gotten stronger recently about preserving our past,” he said.
Cain mentioned the Pearl Street Historic District, the Dilworth Hotel, and the city having become a Main Street Community.
“Through that, we’ve been able to preserve a lot of our buildings in the downtown,” he said. “Downtown has become listed on the National Register of Historic Places. We’ve taken extreme efforts ourselves with regards to the preservation and retention of the 1910 Waterworks Building on Division Street.”
Cain added, “It’s kind of frustrating now that (we’ve) kind of made all this progress and we have the tools in place that we have an effort at the legislative level in Lansing to basically weaken and undermine some of those tools.”
Cain said there are already good checks and balances locally to deal with appeals or concerns relating to the historic district.
“If history is important to Boyne City, and we like the direction that things have been going, I think it’s important for us to tell the legislators in Lansing … don’t fix something that we don’t believe is broken in the first place,” he said.
Boyne City Commissioner Laura Sansom asked what started the move to make changes in the first place.
McPherson said a downstate fight over a historic district prompted a citizen to contact the legislature regarding the matter.
Boyne City Commissioner Hugh Conklin asked if there were many grievances filed by property owners in the city’s historic areas.
McPherson said he has only received correspondence from one property owner in the district.
Commissioners voted unanimously to send the letter of opposition.