BY BENJAMIN J. GOHS, NEWS EDITOR
Major changes proposed for Michigan’s historic district law could be felt locally.
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.
“The proposed changes in the law appear to be an attempt to weaken the existing law and reduce the number of historic districts,” Boyne City Planning Director Scott McPherson told the Boyne City Gazette on Friday Jan. 29. “In Boyne City, there is one historic district that contains about a dozen residential structures located on Pearl Street. The proposed sunset provision, which could be extended every 10 years with a two-thirds majority of the district residents, definitely raises the potential that the district could be rescinded.”
Supporters of the Changes
According to Michigan legislators in favor of changes to the law, local property owners would have more influence in the creation and operation of structures and property under the purview of Michigan’s Historic Districts Act.
Proponents say state-level commissions—with little local input—currently decide whether a historic district is formed.
“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 Tuesday Jan. 26 press release. “This will help many communities maintain their historic identity while ensuring private property owners have a greater voice.”
House Bill 5232, sponsored by Afendoulis, and Senate Bill 720, sponsored by Sen. Peter MacGregor (R-Rockford), would make the following changes:
1. Require new districts to receive support of at least two-thirds of property owners within a proposed district
2. Expand local review of proposed projects
3. Allow property owners to appeal to city councils or township boards about historic districts
Afendoulis and MacGregor say current law gives too much power to “preservation activists.”
“As a result, private property rights are not considered,” they state in the news release. “Additionally, exact boundaries of a proposed historic district can be changed without notice to, or input from, affected property owners through decisions made in Lansing, not local communities.”
MacGregor said this new common sense legislation would give communities the right to decide whether historic districts are right for them.
Sponsors of the bill also say modernizing the Historic Districts Act will allow structure owners to have more control over what kind of building materials they use when renovating historic spaces.
“Modern construction practices and cutting-edge building materials and windows now allow private property owners to improve and reinvest in ways that are cost-effective and environmentally sound while maintaining historical integrity and consistency,” said Rep. Jason Sheppard (R-Temperance). “This legislation provides much needed updates allowing for flexibility at the local level and has the potential to incentivize—as opposed to discourage—reinvestment, improvements and upgrades to aging properties.”
Opponents of the Changes
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.
“Keeping these historic places is so important that historic preservation has been upheld as a public purpose under the U. S. Constitution,” MHPN says in a Thursday Jan. 28 advocacy alert. “[P]reserving historic resources is a valid governmental goal. And, local historic district ordinances have been upheld as an appropriate means to secure that goal.”
According to MHPN, creation of local historic districts is the only way for communities to manage and protect their historic assets, which 78 communities around the state have done so far.
“The bill to amend 1970 Public Act 169 jeopardizes the efficient and fair process for establishing local historic districts already in place under PA 169, reduces protection given to resources in local historic districts, and diminishes the authority of local historic district commissions and local legislative bodies,” the MHPN stated.
Weakening Historic Protections?
According to the MHPN, the bill would do the following:
• Dispose of the current process for dissolving historic districts and allow local legislative bodies to eliminate local historic districts without guidelines, justification or community input
• Reduce reliance on accepted best-practice standards
• Change the appeals process for an aggrieved property owner within a district; instead of appealing to a neutral state board, appeals would be heard at the local level where political and development pressures could affect the outcome
• Make it impossible for local legislative bodies to act quickly to head off a sudden development threat to a community landmark
“Currently, in municipalities with a historic district ordinance, a local legislative body can place a threatened resource under study for local designation and delay development in that area for up to six months,” says MHPN. “This bill proposes to petition local property owners and acquire a two-thirds majority in support before a historic district study committee could even be appointed, wiping out the local body’s ability to act quickly under threat.”
The preservation network also says the bill would mandate a vote of the people to support the district after a local legislative body establishes the local historic district in order for it to be official.
“Further, the electorate will have to vote on its local historic districts every 10 years, even in communities with longstanding historic districts, imposing unnecessary and substantial costs upon municipalities in staff time and community education,” says MHPN. “These inefficient processes undermine local representative democracy. Why would the State impose a sunset clause on local decisions?”
Ultimately, McPherson said, the purpose of a historic district is to preserve the character and architecture of historical structures. And, the establishment of such a district gives the community some assurance that the historical structures in the district will be maintained.
“While in number terms the elimination of the district would only affect a relatively small number of structures, the effect could be significant as these structures make up a prominent feature on the gateway into the city,” said McPherson.