Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Look at Houston's Preservation Ordinance

In 1995 Houston passed its first preservation ordinance. While preservationists considered that initial ordinance weak, they have subsequently worked to make its mandates stronger. But regardless of its strength, preservation ordinances are a violation of property rights by their very nature. As such, they should be repealed.

There are two ways for a property to receive an historic designation, and therefore come under the guidelines of the ordinance. The first is for the property owner to file an application with the city. The second is, according to the Houston City Code:
The HAHC [Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission] upon instructing the planning official to prepare an application for designation. Within ten working days following the action of the HAHC initiating an application, the planning official shall mail notice to the owner of the property or the owner's agent, as shown on the most recent city tax roll, that the HAHC has initiated an application.

This means that HAHC can designate a property "historical" without the owner's consent, and thus subject the owner to the dictates of the ordinance. Among the requirements of the ordinance is city permission to demolish an historical building. Violators are subject to fines up to $500 per day and a 2-year moratorium on building on the site. In short, a property owner could find himself with a house that he cannot demolish without seeking city permission.

And what criteria might the HAHC use to designate a building historical? Here are a few:

Whether the building or structure or the buildings or structures within the area are the best remaining examples of an architectural style or building type in a neighborhood;
Whether the building, structure, object or site or the buildings, structures, objects or sites within the area are identified as the work of a person or group whose work has influenced the heritage of the city, state or nation;
Whether the building, structure, object or site has value as a significant element of community sentiment or public pride.

Again, a property owner could find his hands tied regarding the use of his property because the HAHC finds his building to be a good architectural example, it is identified with an influential person, or there is a "significant element" of public pride associated with the building. What the property owner thinks is irrelevant. The ordinance states that a building must be 50 years old to receive the historical designation,
unless it is found that the building, structure, object, site or area is of extraordinary importance to the city, state or nation for reasons not based on age. [emphasis added]

For the preservationist, age is the primary consideration. If it is old, it must be good. If it is old, it must be preserved. To hell with preserving our liberty; at least we will have a lot of old buildings to look at while we walk around in chains.

Making matters worse, public hearings must be held for each application. This gives the public a greater voice in the use of property than the actual owner. And if the owners of 51% of the property within a neighborhood apply for a historic district designation, the minority are subjected to the desires and values of their neighbors.

If your property is designated historic, you must grovel before city officials it you want to repair, restore, or do virtually anything to the exterior of your home.
No person shall alter, rehabilitate, restore or construct any exterior feature of a landmark or protected landmark without a certificate of appropriateness.

No person shall alter, rehabilitate, restore or construct any exterior feature of any building, structure or object within an historic district without a certificate of appropriateness.

And what is deemed "appropriate"? Among the criteria listed in the ordinance:
The proposed activity must retain and preserve the historical character of the property;
The proposed activity must contribute to the continued availability of the property for a contemporary use;
The proposed activity must recognize the building, structure, object or site as a product of its own time and avoid alterations that seek to create an earlier or later appearance;
The proposed activity must preserve the distinguishing qualities or character of the
building, structure, object or site and its environment;
The proposed activity must maintain or replicate distinctive stylistic exterior features or examples of skilled craftsmanship that characterize the building, structure, object or site;

So if a house has rotting wood siding, that siding must be replaced with the same style of siding, even though newer materials (such as Hardi Plank) are more durable and require less maintenance. Maintaining the character of the home is more important than any other consideration. And if you believe otherwise, they the city will hit you with fines for violating its decrees.

Preservationists would have us believe that our heritage consists of ship lap siding, oak floors, and wood windows. In their effort to preserve old buildings, they are destroying our true heritage--individual freedom.

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