Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | July 8, 2008

Honoring Patrick Henry’s words with our deeds

Preservation of historic buildings is a laudable goal. But it is not the most important goal for this, or any, American community.

What’s more important — and more American — than historic preservation? Civil liberties preservation.

It’s so important that patriot Patrick Henry prized it above life itself: “Give me liberty or give me death.”

Civil liberties are the rights granted in the Constitution to limit government intrusion into citizens’ lives. They include the rights of assembly, privacy, access to courts, free speech, free press and freedom of religion.

Many of my politically left friends join me in protecting these civil liberties. The ACLU, for example, defends civil liberties even when the person exercising them is unpopular or offensive, a practice that irritates many of my politically right friends.

However, many folks who consider themselves to be left-leaning civil libertarians often overlook another important civil liberty – property rights.

Despite their poor-stepsister status, property rights are just as important as any of our other civil liberties and require vigorous defense, especially in this post-Kelo, post-Prop 99 era.

When it comes to preserving old structures, I’m all for designating properties as historically significant — if affected property owners consent.

But governments must not impose restrictive historically significant designations on owners who purchased properties without that designation.

Remember, civil liberties limit governmental intrusion into citizens’ lives. But Morgan Hill’s Historical Resource Code limits property rights and intrudes into citizens lives by imposing, according to a recent Morgan Hill Times article, “an extensive and ‘invasive’ list of things potentially subject to city control and permitting requirements” on owners of properties that the city designates as historically significant.

The historically significant designation is different than CC&Rs because CC&Rs are disclosed to potential buyers before they purchase properties. The historically significant designation is being imposed on owners after they purchase properties.

The designation brings such onerous intrusions that Mary Wright, current owner of the George Edes house on First Street, went to City Council to plead that her home not be designated as historically significant, The Times reported.

“We had extensive conversations with the staff saying our house may or may not be subject to … all the particulars,” Wright said. “… It’s very scary for us because it’s literally everything.”

Council agreed not to impose the historically significant designation on the George Edes house because Wright is preserving the home, which her great-great grandfather built at the turn of the 20th century, on her own.

“Far be it for me … to dictate to them what they should and should not do when it’s obvious they’re very committed to keeping the house in the family and in the manner that it’s been kept up in for the past 100 years,” Councilmember Marby Lee said.

Really, whether Wright keeps the house “in the family” or not and whatever “manner” she chooses to keep it are irrelevant. The house belongs to Wright – it’s her property.

If she wanted to remodel it into a hacienda-style knockoff or paint it garish hues, that’s her right because it’s her property.

If she doesn’t want a historically significant designation imposed on the house, that’s her right because it’s her property.

You might not make the same choices, but property rights are more important than historic preservation.

I don’t have a problem with an opt-in historic designation program. If a property owner opts into a program – probably one with incentives such as property tax breaks, permit fee reductions, and the like – then the historically significant designation could stay with the property in perpetuity. This way, like CC&Rs, the historically significant designation would be disclosed to potential buyers before they purchase a property.

Community Development Director Kathy Molloy-Previsich told City Council during the George Edes home debate that Morgan Hill’s Historical Resource Code is being updated.

Here’s something the code needs to include, if, like Patrick Henry, we value liberty above old structures: Language that makes it clear that property owners can choose whether or not to participate in the program.

Yes, historically significant structures have value to the community. Folks who are passionate about them can purchase such structures and preserve the buildings themselves, rather than imposing their passion on unwilling property owners.

Because civil liberties are more important than old buildings, designations of historical significance must not be imposed upon property owners who do not want those designations, whether they’re preserving their old structures or not.

Otherwise, Morgan Hill’s historic structures will be monuments to our diminished property rights.

Note: This was a point-counterpoint style column I wrote for the Morgan Hill Times on the topic of historic preservation. The opposing column was written by Sam Shueh.

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Responses

  1. Do you also think that standard Zoning laws should be opt-in only, or those about residential density? What if I wanted to build a 10-unit, 6 story condo-complex in a single-family neighborhood?

    Property regulations are put in place democratically, through the work of neighborhood associations and local elected representatives. They serve a valid purpose, but your concerns are valid as well. I’d suggest you get involved in the historic designation meetings so that your input can be incorporated from the beginning. It would be better to express your opinions inside the meetings than on the outside.


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