March 9 2016 01:12 PM

Preservationists fear Republican bill would dismantle 78 historic districts

A bill sponsored by Republicans in the Legislature has the state's preservation community on red alert over the fate of Michigan's 78 historic districts, even after changes were introduced at a Feb. 24 hearing.

The bill adds more procedural hurdles to the establishment of a historic district and makes it optional, instead of mandatory, to follow federal guidelines for historic structures, among other changes.

Both Nathalie Winans, who chairs Lansing's Historic District Commission, and Amanda Harrell-Seyburn, who chairs East Lansing's counterpart, said the bills would "dismantle" historic districts, statewide.

"We're still advocating to kill this bill," said Nancy Finegood, director of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network.

State Rep. Chris Afendoulis introduced the bill in the House Jan. 26. Sen. Peter Mac- Gregor introduced an identical bill in the state Senate. Both represent Grand Rapids districts, where opponents of a historic district in the affluent suburb of East Grand Rapids include Kent County Republican Chairman John Inhulsen and Meijer Inc. co-CEO Mark Murray.

Afendoulis didn't return calls. Leah Maher, MacGregor's legislative director, said the bill is meant to "modernize" the 46-year-old law.

"The intention is to come up with a piece of legislation that returns a greater amount of local control," Maher said.

She said the bill is still being "negotiated" and hasn't made it out of the House's Local Government Committee yet.

Gov. Rick Snyder has not signaled whether he would sign the bill if it is passed. Snyder and his wife, Sue, moved into a condo in the Main Street historic district in downtown Ann Arbor last year.

"There's this hysteria that [the bill is] getting shoved through, and that's not true," Maher said.

Both Afendoulis and MacGregor met with several "interested parties," Maher said, and the second draft reflects those discussions.

"There will probably be more changes in committee," Maher said.

Preservationists have a long list of objections to the bill.

Finegood said it would take away a crucial tool used to save historic buildings threatened by demolition. Under the current law, city officials can stay a demolition for six months while a committee is formed to consider creating a historic district. The revised bill would require two-thirds approval, by petition, of the property owners in a proposed historic district, before local officials can form the committee. By that time, Finegood said, developers can squash a historic church or home into a parking lot.

Preservationists also say the proposed bill would undermine historic preservation standards. Under the bill, historic commissions could ignore the U.S. Interior Dept. guidelines for historic preservation if they find "that a different standard is in the best interests of the community."

"That just means, 'Do whatever you want,' Finegood said.

"It's easy for historic districts to decline in value and quality, slowly, piece by piece, one layer of vinyl siding or one crappy door from Wal-Mart at a time," Winans said.

Lansing has 10 historic districts, but eight of them are single buildings and one consists of two homes — far fewer than other large Michigan cities such as Grand Rapids, with six districts covering about 2,500 properties, or Kalamazoo, with five districts covering about 2,075 properties.

Councilwoman Jessica Yorko's Fourth Ward includes the only historic district in Lansing that has more than two buildings, Cherry Hill, which has about 30 homes more than 100 years old.

Yorko said it's hard enough already to form a historic district. "Even if everyone wants to have it, it's a lot of paperwork, a lot of steps," she said.

While the proposed changes in the law would have less impact in Lansing than in cities with extensive network of historic districts, the capital offers an object lesson in what might happen if the bills become law and districts become even harder to establish.

In 2008, Yorko and other members of the Saginaw-Oakland Commercial Association talked about creating one or more districts along Saginaw Street to prevent losses like the unexpected 2011 demolition of the Holy Cross school building at 1514 W. Saginaw. The city approved the demolition, but city planning director Bob Johnson said the application should have been scrutinized more closely. "Lansing lost a special and iconic building," Johnson said in an interview shortly after the demolition.

The demolition could have been stayed if a historic district commission had been created, Yorko said. Yorko and other westsiders met with members of the State Historic Preservation Office and the National Historic Trust, but the district never materialized.

"They laid it all out for us," Yorko said. "It's a lot of work. We didn't have the capacity or the volunteers."

Harrell-Seyburn said historic districts are crucial to preserving old neighborhoods in East Lansing, where six districts cover about 800 properties, many of them rentals.

"There's a reason why historic districts have been established in heavily rental neighborhoods," Harrell-Seyburn said. "Most landlords want to do whatever they want, whenever they want. They'd raze the turn-of-the-century houses and build highrises if they could."

The proposed bills would also change the way property owners appeal decisions by local preservation boards. Instead of appealing to a state board of preservation specialists, they would appeal to local officials such as a City Council.

To preservationists, that looks like a solution looking for a problem. Finegood said only one appeal was filed in Michigan in 2015.

Yorko said she hasn't heard any complaints from constituents on overly stringent historic district requirements.

"I don't recall anyone from Cherry Hill neighborhood ever calling me up and saying, 'This historic district is really holding me back,'" Yorko said.

Dale Schrader is vice president of Preservation Lansing, a nonprofit that lobbies for historic districts and recognizes key area projects in an annual awards ceremony.

Schrader has restored several homes and buildings in north Lansing, including a 1923 Sinclair filling station on Grand River Avenue.

Schrader said the proposed bills are "designed to rig the game against historic preservation districts."

He dreads the prospect of appealing a historic commission ruling to a "politicized" city council or township board rather than a state board of preservation experts.

Here, too, Lansing provides a handy object lesson. "I live in a neighborhood with that Niowave pole barn," Schrader said, referring to a three-story-tall, 14,000-square-foot, corrugated steel structure erected by the Niowave Corp. in 2012 in the Walnut Neighborhood with support from Lansing city officials.

"Suddenly this inappropriate structure appeared in the yard of a historic school, with historic homes around it, but it's not a historic district, so they can do what they want," Schrader said.

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