Myth: Local Historic Districts are an un-American violation of property rights

The myth states that local historic districts cause a loss of property rights.    Local Historic Districts no more infringe on property rights than do many other laws and private rules that Americans have long accepted. Though everyone likes to believe, “my home is my castle and I can do whatever I want,” this statement simply doesn’t reflect reality.


Try to fix something arbitrarily on your property and most likely you will have the building inspector demanding intervention.       What about building or changing something on your structure?   If it violates the city’s ordinances or zoning, expect to be hauled before the Planning or Zoning boards.      Feel like not paying your taxes?   Watch your property being seized to pay the lien.      


They may seem intrusive but we should all be happy that such intervention prevents a neighbor from putting in a landfill or a skyscraper behind your back fence or a vertical five-story mansion.       Condominium associations and gated communities even endure much greater restrictions than a local historic district – rules that prevent owning a pet, washing your car in your own driveway, etc.     These are more onerous than a local historic district yet vocal property rights advocates commonly accept them as the norm.


Local historic districts do not control how you are going to use the building though normal zoning will have a say!    Local historic districts have no control over the interior of the building, yet the building inspector may wish to know!     Local historic districts do not control buying or selling or impose any easements (restrictions) on the deed.      As long as the homeowner is in accordance with the building code, local ordinances and zoning and pays his taxes, he is free to improve his property, do what he wants and sell his property.      


But according to The National Architectural Trust, we have lost one-third of our historic properties since 1984 when the National Register historic district was established.     That has translated according to Mass Historic to over 700 buildings lost.


The National Register program couldn’t stop the destruction, the Newburyport Historic Preservation Plan of 1991 couldn’t slow them down and the recent effort for National Landmark Status won’t put a dent into the losses.        Yet, we need our historic district truly protected from destruction.


What the local historic district does is establish a review board much as the downtown has already but which covers the residential areas.     And we have ex post facto laws in this country.    No one is going to force a home to remove their vinyl siding or redo a building structure put in before the LHD was established.     Only if you wish to make changes and do renovation will the City step in and direct work toward improving the historic preservation condition of your home.     


We have hungry developers who are invading our city and many care nothing about historic preservation.  The term that is often used, “flipping a house” usually means, gutting a house to its studs, using the cheapest material possible, renovate it and turn it over for a quick sale, historic preservation be damned!  These are constant threats to our historic neighborhoods.


The issue is not property rights but protection for the greater good of all citizens.    Zoning was created for that exact same reason and all the LHD serves is an extension of that intent.   In contrast, we have seen developers and individual property owners who have put their interests over the betterment of the community.     We have seen national treasures cast off and demolished with little concern except for profit.    


Historic preservation is Newburyport’s economic trump card.      Yet, it does not lie in just one building or a small group of buildings; it’s the entire historic district.     It must be all protected or Newburyport loses its historic value.     


2200 other historic districts have proven that property values stabilize in an LHD as well as in surrounding properties.     As for taxes, we have already seen in the present recession that property taxes go up even when your property values plummet.      Better to be in a position where the values are stable therefore adding investment dollars through enhanced equity rather than other communities that raise taxes while property values plummet.


The Local Historic District Study Committee’s purpose is to streamline the permitting process and not make it burdensome.  It will be local citizens who will be manning the LHD commission just like local citizens fill the Planning and Zoning Boards.    


What will be the benefit to the homeowner?     The stability and security that some abutter won’t be building their own idea of paradise at your expense.    There will also be a stable rise in property values and a reduction in the expense of permitting.       And our splendid historic neighborhoods will be a property owner’s best investment.     Every homeowner will be covered in the warm blanket of security assured that his fine neighborhood will stay that way.        


What a comforting thought!


-P. Preservationist

About P. Preservationist

Dedicated to the Enrichment & Preservation of Newburyport
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