Preserving our history . . . of respect for property rights

Posted: Jun 07, 2009 12:00 AM

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.

*** Special Offer ***

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.

Montgomery County is chock full of historic places. More than 400 sites and 21 neighborhoods have been “taken over” by regulators due to the proclaimed uniqueness of the site’s history or architecture.

Currently, anyone can nominate a historic site or district for inclusion in the county’s Master Plan for Historic Preservation. The property must then meet only one of the following criteria:

  1. Character, interest or value as part of the development, heritage or culture of the county, state or country.
  2. Be of a significant historical event.
  3. Be identified with a person or group who influenced society.
  4. Exemplify the cultural, economic, social, political or historic heritage of the county and its communities.
  5. The architecture of the historic resource embodies the distinctive characteristic of a type, period or method of construction.
  6. The architecture represents the work of a master, possesses high artistic values or represents a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction.
  7. The architecture represents an established and familiar visual feature of the neighborhood, community or county.

These criteria are open to very broad interpretation.

Landowners also complain that the county fails to inform them when their property is being considered for historic designation and that, once so designated, obtaining work permits from the Historic Preservation Commission in order to make alterations to their homes or businesses is both slow and expensive.

After listening to months of testimony from residents upset with the power (and resultant behavior) of county officials, Montgomery County Councilman Michael J. Knapp introduced the Historic Preservation Amendment (HPA) with the goal of making the preservation process easier to understand. The amendment will have a hearing this week.

Knapp argues that his revision “will force the Historic Preservation Commission to enter into dialogue with the property owners. We had to have four committee meetings because the Historic Preservation Commission said they sent a letter but never actually spoke with people.”

Knapp’s legislation removes “high artistic value” as a criterion. He says, “There’s no good way to get a handle on what makes it subjectively artistic.”

Under Knapp’s proposal, if the property owner does not consent to having his property designated as part of the so-called Master Plan for Historic Preservation, a finding that the property satisfies at least three of the historic criteria is required and the designation must be approved by no less than four of the five Planning Board members.

Preservationists are fighting Knapp, of course. They claim history will be lost if they don’t have the power to grab control of more and more property. The recently deceased head of Montgomery Preservation, Inc., said of Knapp’s bill, “He’s basically working to eliminate our historic preservation ordinance.”

Their big fear is that a win for property owners in this one Maryland county might spread elsewhere. We can hope for both outcomes.

Property rights should trump this hyper-nostalgic land-grabbing. But, in addition to property rights, there’s a human element here, too. The stress of this ordeal has meant a number of sleepless nights for 90-year old Duvall and a worsening of his high blood pressure.

I love history. And I support preservation efforts. Just not preservation by force.

If one wants to preserve what one deems to be historic, the process is really easy: buy it.

If . . . the owner is willing to sell. 

Trending Townhall Video