Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Saving Historic Homes



Please welcome Nell Carson to It's Not All Gravy.  No cookies today, but how about a nice piece of Gingerbread courtesy of ALL RECIPES.COM  I thought that apropos considering then title of Nell's new book.

Thank you, Maryann, for inviting me to guest post! 

I thought I’d write today about a subject I learned a good deal about while writing my second novel, The Gingerbread House—historical preservation. In the book, Greta Kendall, is fighting to save her beloved Queen Anne house from being torn down by a company bent on putting up a new mall on the site.

While researching the ins and outs of historical preservation laws, I read about a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from 2005 (Kelo v. City of New London) in which the court decided that under Eminent Domain a city can legally take someone’s private property—their home—and transfer it to another party, in this case a developer, against the will of the homeowner. 

In the Kelo case, the City of New London in Connecticut condemned Susette Kelo’s Victorian home that had been renovated only three years earlier, along with several others, so a developer could build a new marina. Kelo took to the courts, arguing that Eminent Domain should mean for public purposes only, not for private development. 

The power of Eminent Domain is limited by the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment which states that private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation. The city argued that the development was ultimately good for the public by way of increased revenue. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court sided with the city and Kelo’s home as well as her neighbors’ were slated for destruction.

Rubbing salt into the wound, the city decided to charge the residents rent for their property dating back to the start of the proceedings—five years—claiming they were technically living on city property even though the homeowners were fighting against the city’s actions. Thankfully the governor intervened and the city eventually compensated the homeowners for their homes and ultimately issued an apology. 

Compensation and apologies aside, most of the homes were destroyed and that can never be undone. No one knows this better than the renovation crew in France that just a few weeks ago accidentally tore down the 18th century chateau they were supposed to rehab instead of the guest house. Oops

Another argument to support the use of Eminent Domain is to rid cities of blight, but as Justice Anthony Kennedy said, ‘Blight is in the eye of the beholder’. An enthusiastic rehabber might look at a blighted section of town and see an opportunity to bring the historic structures back to life. In Denver, for instance, there’s our ‘LoDo’ or Lower Downtown area of town, a former skid row turned tourist attraction with its pricey restaurants and exclusive boutiques, run-down warehouses and factories turned into expensive lofts and offices. Sure the old structures could have been torn down to make way for more modern buildings but the character that comes from age is priceless and that would have been lost forever. (I try to keep this in my mind with each new wrinkle that pops up in the mirror!)

My husband and I are the proud owners of a 1922 bungalow that wasn’t in the best shape when we bought it, and for five years we’ve been working on its seemingly endless renovations, project by project. Slow going and expensive but incredibly satisfying once it’s done. You have to really love something to work so hard for it, and I can only imagine how horrible it would be to have it taken away for the ‘greater good’. I feel for these people. 

But I also feel for the city. We all demand top-notch schools, fire departments, police, etc. but balk when it comes to tax increases. So what’s a city to do? The money’s got to come from somewhere. 

Unfortunately desperation can lead to short-sighted action, in this case tearing down historic structures in the hopes of a quick cash fix that ultimately didn’t even pan out in New London. In a sad twist to the Kelo case, the developer couldn’t find enough funding and abandoned the project leaving only an empty lot where the homes once stood. It was used as a dump for Hurricane Irene debris in 2011. It now stands vacant.

I guess the solution, if it could be called that, would be to take these situations on a case-by-case basis, objectively evaluate the finality of the destruction versus the possible revenue that could be generated and make smart decisions for both the long and short terms. I, for one, hope the preservationists win out whenever possible. The state of the economy flows in ebbs and tides but once these structures are gone, there’s no turning back.

Forever is a long time.
Coffee's hot. Enjoy!
Nell's book, The Gingerbread House, is a sweet romance. Here is a link to a REVIEW I did last Sunday.

1 comment:

Maryann Miller said...

Thank you for such an interesting post. We have certainly stretched the limits of Eminent Domain.