Preservation Ordinances Protect Community Character

The recent controversy over the potential loss of significant architectural elements at the Faerber/Morse House, the grand Beaux Arts-style mansion at 13405 Lake Avenue, has members of the Lakewood City Council, as well as many residents, debating the merits of enacting some type of local preservation ordinance in Lakewood. Among Lakewood's irreplaceable assets are its historic properties, which give the city its distinctive sense of place and community character. Maintaining a unique sense of place has proven to be an important part of many communities' economic development plans.
Many people believe that listing on The National Register of Historic Places protects a building from inappropriate alterations or demolition, but this is not true. National Register listing is primarily an honor. Income-producing buildings that are listed on the National Register may be eligible for federal historic preservation tax credits. The federal government, through State Historic Preservation Offices, does review projects that use federal funds to make sure there are no adverse effects on National Register-listed or National Register-eligible properties, but the greatest protection is through local ordinances enacted by local governments.
Preservation ordinances are local laws that protect historic properties from demolition or inappropriate alteration. Ordinances vary from city to city-some might cover any exterior change, including paint color. Most, however, cover roof material, siding, windows, and porch details. In areas designated as "conservation districts" only demolitions, new construction, and the addition of heated space (porch enclosures, dormers, etc.) are reviewed.
Typically, any project that has an impact on the exterior of a designated property is reviewed by a local preservation commission or design review committee, a group of residents who have some architectural or preservation expertise or knowledge of the community's history, and who essentially represent the rest of the community. An ordinance can protect either individual buildings or groups of buildings, known as historic districts. When a community enacts an ordinance, they also adopt design guidelines, so those property owners affected by the ordinance know what is considered appropriate for the district.
The constitutionality of local historic preservation ordinances has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Penn Central Transportation Company vs. New York City in 1978. "The legal foundation for local historic preservation legislation is firmly upheld as long as the design review board or commission has well-thought-out criteria and standards, good hearing procedures, well-documented records of its decisions, sound administrative oversight, and as long as its decisions are consistent and serve multiple public goals," according to Judith L. Kitchen of the Ohio Historic Preservation Office in Characteristics of Local Historic Preservation Legislation (Ohio Historic Preservation Office, 1989). Criteria for designating a building or district might include having a role in local, state, or national history; having a unique design; or being an excellent example of an architectural style.
In order to stand up in court, an ordinance must not be so restrictive as to deprive a property owner of all reasonable economic use of his property and must honor a citizen's right to due process. Property owners should be given adequate notice and the right to be heard before their property is designated. A well-developed ordinance should also include a process for evaluating claims of economic hardship.
A common misconception is that historic designation impacts property value by limiting a homeowner's rights, but the reverse has been proven. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has documented in several studies that property values tend to be higher in historic districts than in similar neighborhoods without a designation.
Another misconception is that an historic ordinance "freezes a community in time." The fact that a community has a preservation ordinance doesn't mean that change doesn't occur; it simply means that change doesn't "just happen." When a building or district is impacted that a community has designated as being "special," the community has some input into the project.
Ohio City is a community in Northeastern Ohio that has benefited greatly from its several historic districts-Market Square, Franklin Circle, and Ohio City. The popularity of the community, amount of reinvestment in commercial buildings (some facilitated by Federal Preservation Tax Incentives) and new development have all increased in recent years. Last year, Urban Community School was granted permission by The Ohio City Near West Design Review Committee to demolish several buildings in the last remaining block of Lorain Avenue that had historic buildings on both sides of the street. These buildings had been donated to the school. Once the design review committee was satisfied that the school had adequately explored other options to demolition, such as reusing the historic buildings (which wasn't possible because of different floor levels between buildings and some environmental issues), the school was granted permission to demolish the buildings. The local design review committee worked with representatives of the school and their architect to enhance the design of the new building. The different colors of masonry in this very contemporary new school building reflects the fact that most blocks of Lorain have historically had several buildings on them. Arched windows are a small homage to the Schaub Bakery Building that stood on the site. This and other contemporary townhouse developments in Ohio City attest to the fact that a preservation ordinance doesn't stop new development, but in fact, may encourage development by preserving a unique sense of place.
Preservation ordinances have been proven to enhance the quality of community life in other communities as well. "They give us a way of passing on to future generations historic sites that help explain why our society evolved as it did, while preserving architectural treasures that can never be replaced. And they help bring beauty and civility to our cities," according to Constance Beaumont, retired from the Public Policy staff of The National Trust.
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Volume 1, Issue 4, Posted 06.17 AM / 09th August 2005.