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Planning expert: Legislation could "abolish historic districts" in Michigan

Feb 24, 2016

Credit Andrew Jameson / Wikimedia Commons

Depending on your viewpoint, a pair of bills being proposed by the Michigan House and Senate are either a threat to historic districts in Michigan, or a property rights issue for individuals and developers.

House Bill 5232 and Senate Bill 720 would end any historic districts already in Michigan after ten years. Residents and the preservation community would have to apply all over again to win the designation of historic district. And the bills would set a much higher bar for preservationists to jump over.

According to a report by MLive.com, an affluent suburb of Grand Rapids, is behind the push for the legislation. The goal is for developers to make it easier to modify, and in some cases, demolish homes protected by historic district standards.  

Andrea Brown from the Michigan Association of Planning joined Stateside to shed some light on the twin legislation.

“Historic districts, as the law stands right now, are already pretty difficult to create,” said Brown. “There are only 78 or 80 historic districts in Michigan, which considering the bill has been in place since 1970, that isn’t all that many. We have 500 and some local cities and villages in Michigan. But it is a tool that many local governments and citizens value.”

[Historic districts] are at risk of being demolished and replaced with sprawl-like development, strip malls, nondescript apartment buildings, banks, fast food restaurants

Brown points out that one of major changes proposed in the legislation is the renewal process. When the historic district designation is set to expire, the process of renewing is more arduous than the requirements to get the designation in the first place. The new bills say that a simple majority of property owners would not be enough to earn renewal. If the bills pass, a two-thirds vote would be required.

According to Brown, supporters of the bill see less regulations on historic districts as a way to open the door for economic development. She sees that as a short-sighted approach as young people and mobile seniors are leaving the state seeking vibrant downtowns that are walkable and accessible.

“[Historic districts] are at risk of being demolished and replaced with sprawl-like development, strip malls, nondescript apartment buildings, banks, fast food restaurants that aren’t in keeping with, not just the values of the community, but with the form of a traditional downtown," said Brown.

What does Brown feel the end game is for this twin legislation?

“To abolish historic districts as we know them in Michigan,” said Brown. “I believe it gets at … this push and pull … between individual property rights and a larger value to the community.”

Listen to the full interview below to hear Brown discuss some of the misinformation about what it takes to maintain a historic district.