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Dictatorship of Gadflies


In any catalog of late 20th-century dementia, the historic-preservation movement will take an honored place. A movement that did much to educate the public on the value of historic buildings in the 1960s and 1970s has long since been replaced by “hysterical preservationism.” Preservationists have “progressed” from targeting specific buildings to targeting neighborhoods and even entire valleys and states for strict, government-enforced controls.

Historic-preservation boards in recent years have seized control over places as diverse as pet cemeteries and concrete elephants found in real-estate advertisements. In Annapolis, Maryland, preservation police are fighting a crime wave of hanging flowerpots in the historic district.

Seattle, with its yuppie-paradise, coffee-fiend pretensions, naturally is flush with preservation fever. A 1995 Wall Street Journal article noted:

“Just about anything more than 25 years old can qualify as a historical landmark here. City rules require only that a structure meet certain broad criteria, such as ‘prominence of spatial location.’ Or it must be ‘an easily identifiable visual feature of a neighborhood.'”

A jogging path received landmark status, as did a ship that sank several years ago. The city preservation board forced a biotech company to spend half a million dollars to add fake smokestacks to an old powerplant that it had converted to a research laboratory.

Some preservationists seem paranoid of any change. The D.C. Preservation League issued its own “Most Endangered Properties List” last year — and among the group’s demands was that Pierre L’Enfant’s original 1790s plan for the city of Washington be given historic status — thus locking the nation’s capital into a 200-year-old straitjacket to comply with the long-dead Frenchman’s fancies.

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the overreaching of some preservation advocates. The National Trust for Historic Preservation puts out a press-grabbing list each year of the “11 Most Endangered Historic Places.” In 1993, the trust placed the entire state of Vermont on the list. What did the trust desire? A decree that everyone living in Vermont be conscripted to live in an ant farm for the benefit of preservation-minded tourists? The arrest of any farmer who moved his cows away from a scenic highway? The following year, the trust placed Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on its “most endangered” list.

Government preservation police have seized control over the exteriors — and often the interiors — of hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses. Anything old is, in many areas across the nation, being treated as sacred. For instance, when a preservation group submitted its official application to create a historic district in Orange, California, Anne Siebert, the group president, gushed: “We have the largest concentration of pre-1940s homes in the whole state of California. That’s what’s really spectacular.” Chicago Alderman Bernard Stone, a member of the city council committee on historical and architectural landmarks, observes that the credo of the preservation movement is “Anything that doesn’t move, landmark it.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, the premier preservationist organization, has gone from seeking to educate Americans about historic treasures to clamoring for maximum restrictions on private land use across the nation. The trust is on the frontline fighting against proposed “super-stores” in Manhattan — essentially using its muscle and prestige to ensure that local residents continue paying far more than citizens in neighboring locales for basic necessities.

The trust is also calling for stricter zoning around the country to restrict development. Trust president and long-time Democratic Party operative Richard Moe declared in a speech late last year: “We should demand land-use planning that exhibits a strong bias in favor of existing communities.” Perhaps Moe has not noticed, but there are vast numbers of ugly, shoddy, shabby buildings in this country — many of them more than a few years old — and it is difficult to understand why government should use its iron fist to force people to continue living in fourth-rate architectural heaps. According to the trust’s 1994 annual report, people prefer places where they “can walk from one destination to another.” But, if that was the case, then why did anyone ever move away from the East Coast?

Taxpayers might be surprised to know that the trust — which receives $7 million a year from the federal government — has bankrolled the political opposition to property-rights initiatives. In October 1995, the National Trust tossed in $14,000 and became one of the largest donors to the “No on Referendum 48” coalition working to defeat a private-property rights initiative in Washington state. (The trust gave almost as much to that campaign as did the Sierra Club.) Edward Norton, the trust’s vice president for public policy, justified the contribution because Referendum 48 “is really a stake aimed at the heart of historic-preservation activities.” In an interview last month, Norton stated that the trust has also aided efforts to block property-rights legislation in Florida, Michigan, Colorado, Virginia, and Oregon. Norton denied that any federal money was used in these efforts.

The National Trust was a high-profile opponent of the “takings” or private-property rights legislation from the Republican “Contract with America.” The trust has also filed numerous briefs with the Supreme Court urging that the Court deny property owners any compensation for government actions that nullify or minimize their right to use their property. Trust officials are holier-than-thou in their contempt for property rights: Arnold Berke, editor of the trust’s Historic Preservation News, declaimed, “The public interest in the use of private land must be defended.”

Historic preservation in many cases amounts to little more than using the full force of government to seize control over yuppie comfort symbols. Author James Kunstler, a favorite of preservationists, declared last year: “The price we’re paying for a Big Mac is a complete degradation of our civilization, the complete degradation of our public life. I would say that’s a bad deal.” Yet the trust in 1994 placed the oldest surviving McDonald’s restaurant in Downey, California, on its “most endangered” list. A trust press release declared that the 1953 restaurant is a cultural landmark that “symbolizes America’s love affair with the automobile and the eye-catching vigor of roadside architecture” and labeled the boarded-up, out-of-date (no drive-through window!) restaurant as “an authentic icon of contemporary American life.”

Preservation advocates endlessly repeat that imposition of government controls over property owners practically guarantees an increase in property values. But, obviously, even if there was such an effect at one time, the more such designations are slapped over the landscape, the less effect they will have. Once the novelty effect of historic preservation wears off, its positive economic impact will evaporate — and all that will be left will be the government controls. A 1994 study in the Journal of Real Estate Finance and Economics concluded that local historic preservation controls in Philadelphia resulted in a 24 percent reduction in the price of small apartment buildings. The study, authored by two professors at the Temple School of Business and Management, concluded that “historic control (as practiced in Philadelphia) is confiscatory.” Preservation bureaucrats control more than 15,000 buildings in Philadelphia.

Most of the buildings that the trust and its devotees insist are historic treasures were created as the result of decisions by private owners who had control over their own land. But, according to the trust, the only way to protect the past achievements of private property is to strip current property owners of almost all control over their land, businesses, and homes.

Since many churches are among the oldest buildings in a community, they are first on the preservation’s target list. Preservationists portray their controls as minor nuisances. However, in many cities across the country, government bureaucrats have seized control over the interiors of churches. (More than 300 local landmark laws allow bureaucrats to control the interiors as well as exteriors of designated buildings.) In November 1995, one of southern California’s largest Armenian congregations — the St. Mary’s Apostolic Armenian Church — petitioned the city council to exempt its church from preservation restrictions. The Los Angeles Times noted:

“Supporters of the regulations have cited the church’s desire to build a traditional Eastern-style dome atop the roof as an example of a change that would impair the building’s historical value. But church officials say the dome is a long-term project and that their immediate needs include moving the church altar, building a choir loft and enlarging the sanctuary and Sunday school — all of which require the building to undergo the historical review process under the current law.”

The same people who would scream for the ACLU if the local government dictated that everyone dress in fashions popular in the 1940s avidly support government dictates that force everyone to “dress” their homes the same way that they were decked out 50 years ago. Yet, why should governments have a sacred duty to punish any homeowner who tries to deviate from the architectural fashions of earlier decades? In clashes between preservationists and church congregations, the preservationists often sound far more pious and righteous than the Christians. The preservationist theology presumes that it is heresy for anyone to demolish a building of a certain age (25 years old in Seattle, 50 years in parts of California) — essentially, that whatever is old, is holy. And preservationists tend to worship state power because it is the state that allows them to impose their values on other Americans — seeking heaven on Earth by maximizing government’s power to prohibit anyone from modifying his own property.

Historic preservation efforts are generating backlashes. Preservationists were rebuffed last November by overwhelming popular opposition in their attempt to place an entire 75-square-mile section of an Ozarks river valley on the National Register of Historic Places. Rep. Wally Herger (R-Calif.) denounced the National Register of Historic Places last year: “We have a federal bureaucracy in Washington that’s acting with dictatorial powers and complete disregard for local communities and local people.”

Politicians and bureaucrats must learn to respect the most important historic treasure in this country — the Bill of Rights. The Fifth Amendment of the Bill of Rights declares that private property shall not “be taken for public use without just compensation.” The preservation police are preventing the natural flux of change and suppressing potentially new beauty and innovations arising from individual decisions about their own property, which may, 50 years hence, be regarded as even greater national landmarks.

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    James Bovard is a policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a USA Today columnist and has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader’s Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of Freedom Frauds: Hard Lessons in American Liberty (2017, published by FFF); Public Policy Hooligan (2012); Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book’s Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.