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Bills would make it harder to get, keep historic district status

City of Holland

Bills in the state legislature would change the process for designating local historic districts in Michigan.

A State House committee heard testimony on one of the bills Wednesday.

It would amend the 1970 Local Historic Districts Act, which provides for local district commissions with the power to review and potentially nix architectural and other design changes within the area.

The bills would “modernize a law written 45 years ago [that] strikes the right balance between protecting private property owners’ rights and historic preservation,” said Rep. Chris Afendoulis (R-Grand Rapids Township.) “This will help many communities maintain their historic identity while ensuring private property owners have a greater voice.”

But preservation groups worry the changes amount to a “sudden attack on Michigan’s historic resources” by making it more difficult to designate and maintain the districts.

The changes would require two-thirds of property owners within the district to approve a historic designation, then put it up for a city or township-wide vote.

Unhappy homeowners could also appeal the decision directly to their local governments, rather than a state historic preservation review board.

Nancy Finegood, executive director of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, said preservationists are particularly concerned about a “sunset” provision that would let the districts lapse every ten years—and re-start the whole designation process.

“Which include public hearings, discussions, voting, etc.,” Finegood said. “And it would cost the local municipality a great deal of money.”

Finegood says the bills could also have unintended consequences.

“Our fear is that federal funding for the certified local government program, which is one of the very few grant programs for historic buildings in Michigan, would be jeopardized,” she said.

But Afendoulis and other supporters argue the “current law leaves historic district creation in the hands of “Study Commissions” that are composed solely of preservation activists.”

They say that shortchanges individual property owners’ rights, and prevents needed modernization to some buildings.

78 cities and townships in Michigan have at least one designated  historic district.  

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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