News Story

Bills Impose Accountability on Powerful Historic Districts

Current law lets handful of activists restrict property owners' choices

For nearly a half century, small numbers of architectural preservation activists have used a device called study commissions to get portions of Michigan communities designated as historic districts. These commissions tend to be dominated by the activists and often make decisions that infringe the private property rights of many people. But the rules of the game may soon change.

Rep. Chris Afendoulis, R-Grand Rapids, and Sen. Peter MacGregor, R-Rockford, have introduced bills in the state House and Senate to modify the Historic District Act of 1970, which authorizes these activities. Among other things the legislation would raise the threshold for creating a historic district: Two-thirds of the affected property owners would have to give their assent. The bills would expand individual rights in several other ways as well.

“This will help many communities maintain their historic identity while ensuring that private property owners have a greater voice,” Afendoulis said.

Under current law, once a historic district is created it becomes nearly permanent, regardless of whether people in the community support it. Also, the district boundaries can be altered and even expanded by Lansing bureaucrats — without notice to or input from affected property owners.

The new bills (which aren’t posted online yet) would give local residents the right to appeal historic district actions to the local governing body, city council or township board. Appeals to Lansing bureaucrats would not be required.

“Our law governing historic districts needs to be updated and dusted off,” MacGregor said. “I’m sure the current law was well-meant when it was adopted back in 1970, but over the decades, it has morphed into something that often lacks common sense. This legislation will provide that common sense by enhancing local control and increasing the rights of property owners.”

The legislation would require an affirmative vote by the local governing body to create a historic district. And every 10 years, voters in the community would decide whether to continue an existing district. This latter feature would apply to all historic districts, not just new ones created after the law goes into effect.

In addition, the bills would require that historic district boundaries be clearly defined from the outset, prohibiting changes made later with no disclosure or notice to affected property owners. 

According to Afendoulis, ensuring that the commissions receive the input of property owners and construction experts was one of the primary goals of the legislation.

“That’s an important aspect of this legislation and one that would give property owners much-needed flexibility when choosing construction and replacement materials,” Afendoulis said. “There are materials available now that appear so authentic you can’t tell the difference between them and the original materials used in the earlier time period. Most of these materials were not available back in 1970.”

“Being allowed to utilize these materials would provide private property owners who live in historic districts with significant savings when they make improvements and repairs,” Afendoulis said. “Preserving aesthetic value was the key reason for having historical districts in the first place and being able to use these materials accomplishes that while reducing costs and potentially making the district more economically attractive. However, some historic district commissions refuse to allow these new materials to be used. That’s an example of why this legislation is needed.”

According to the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, 78 Michigan communities currently have historic district ordinances.