Local group opposes bills changing historical districts

By: Mike Koury | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published March 9, 2016


FRANKLIN — The Franklin Historical Society is speaking out against a Michigan House bill and that would affect how a community becomes a historic district.

The bill in question, HB 5232 (H-1), was introduced in late January, though now has been amended to include new changes. A nearly identical bill, SB 0720, also was introduced into the Senate at around the same time.

The bills would change how a community becomes a historic district. It would require local property owners in the boundaries of the district to obtain a two-thirds majority consent before a district could be considered or studied, then a committee would study and hold meetings about the matter and submit a recommendation. Finally, a two-thirds majority approval from the local governing body would be needed.

The previous House bill has a provision stating that historic districts must be reinstated every 10 years, though that is now gone, according to Southeast Michigan Field Representative for the Michigan Historic Preservation Network Ellen Thackery. She said it’s unclear if the provision also was removed from the Senate bill.

In a letter to Michigan legislators, the FHS said changing Public Act 169 of 1970 to shift “the balance of power against historic districts is not appropriate.”

Bill Lamott, FHS treasurer, said that while some people who might want move to a historic district might not like the stricter property laws, they can look somewhere else.

“I understand I don’t have the property rights that somebody else might have, but I’m OK with that,” he said. “It’s a fix for a problem that doesn’t exist.”

The bill was introduced by state Rep. Chris Afendoulis, R-Grand Rapids Township, who said the bill was made to enhance the local control and input of property owners.

Afendoulis said the proposed law would make it harder to eliminate a historic district than how the laws currently are set. He also wanted to include someone in the building and construction trade, an elected official from the governing body, someone from a historic preservation organization, and a property owner from that proposed district on local Historic District Study Committees.

“Only one of those things is required now, and that’s someone who has a demonstrated interest in historic preservation,” he said.

Also in the bill is a new way to appeal a decision that a historic district makes if one wishes to make changes to their home. The change would allow owners to appeal to the local elected body, or another local board, instead of the State Historic Preservation Review Board in Lansing, where all appeals go now.

“That is patently unfair to the property owners,” Afendoulis said. “They should have a right of appeal locally.”

As it stands now, to become a historic district, a local legislative body appoints a committee to study the proposed area, look over its historic resources, follow up with public meetings to discuss, then issue a report and recommendation on the matter. If there is a recommendation, then the governing body will hold more public meetings to hear all concerns and sides on the matter and make a decision. Homes in historic districts, if the owners want exterior work done, also need approval by the local historic commission.

“It flips the process around,” Thackery said. “It makes you get your support before you even explore the idea and have meetings.

“Tying your local legislative body’s hands and saying you can’t even explore this as a land-use option because you now have to go out and get two-thirds property owner majority support — that’s what’s different about this.”

Concerning criticism he’s heard from people about how there’s too many loops to go through now to become a district and whether the proposed law is unnecessary, Afendoulis pointed out that Massachusetts and Connecticut have similar laws where a two-thirds vote is needed to approve a district, although neither requires a two-thirds majority approval from the property owners before a study or committee is formed.

“I would say there is not enough representation for property owners in Michigan,” he said. “Whose property is it when you’re starting to explore? I think that’s the crux of it. People should have an input. Right now, it’s absolutely too easy to get it rolling. They’ll tell you, ‘Hey, that’s not the case,’ but that’s because they have interests in creating ... they want more historic preservation districts.”