Thursday, June 10, 2010

Temporary Today, Permanent Tomorrow

Years ago, when city council was considering Houston's first historic preservation ordinance, I spoke before the council. The ordinance called for a 90-day "waiting period" before an "historic" building could be demolished. Council members considered this an acceptable compromise between preservationists who wanted stricter controls and property rights advocates who opposed any controls.

At that time, I pointed out that if one accepted the premise underlying the ordinance--that it is proper for council to violate property rights--it would only be a matter of time before somebody would demand a complete prohibition on demolitions of historic buildings. In a remarkable display of evasion, a council member remarked that he could not concern himself with what future councils decided.

My "prediction" is indeed coming true, as city council has enacted a "temporary" moratorium on any demolitions of in historic districts. According to the Chronicle, preservationists aren't happy with the current ordinance:
“The 90-day ordinance we have has not worked to preserve the historic character of the city of Houston,” said David Beale, a resident of the West Heights Historic District who has fought a development under way to build four homes where there once were two. “We need a better ordinance, we need a new ordinance, and this new temporary ordinance will give us the time that we need.”
The "compromise" reached on the original ordinance was a complete surrender--it established the principle that council could restrict or prohibit the demolition of buildings deemed historic, regardless of the desires or judgment of the property owner. That the ordinance established a 90-day waiting period was only a minor detail.

In principle, the ordinance stated that, for 90-days the city can dictate what a property owner can do. But what is so magic about 90-days? Why not 120-days, or 180-days, or 3-years, or forever? In principle, if 90-days is proper and just, then so is any amount of time.

The fact is, any controls on land-use that initiate force against property owners (as the preservation ordinance does) are improper and unjust. The preservation ordinance should not be strengthened; it should be repealed.

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