Paul Jacob

As politics pits a property owner in Montgomery County, Maryland, and a county councilman against the county’s Historic Preservation Commission and other do-gooders, Washington Post reporter Ann E. Marimow asks, “Who should decide what is historic?

It’s the wrong question.

Still, the answer is simple: Americans are free to individually decide what they deem to be historic. So are committees and commissions and preservationist societies of all sorts. They just shouldn’t be able to control someone else’s property because of its historical significance.

The more important question: Whose property is it?

The plot of earth at the center of this conflict — the locus of the focus, if you will — belongs to Sherwood and Hazel Duvall. In 1933, at the tender age of 14, Sherwood’s father passed away and Sherwood took over running the farm. He worked the place for 60 years. Now, at 90, he rents tracts of land to local farmers to bring in income.

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For five years, Duvall has been fighting the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission’s determination that his farm should be a “protected” historic site. County regulators say the set of farm buildings on his property are historically and architecturally significant.

“There’s nothing historical about it,” Duvall counters. “It is just old.”

Duvall wants to tear down several dilapidated buildings on his property. The buildings are so old that to keep them standing requires repairs and maintenance costing thousands of dollars per year. Plus, Duvall planned to replace one two-story farmhouse with a newly built home for his grandson.

The county won’t let him.

Last year, it seemed that Duvall had won. The county council decided not to include his property on the list of parcels to be “protected” by the county for historical significance. But he later found his property on a new list of “potentially significant” sites. And still under the thumb of similar land-use regulations.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.