Practice What You Preach

aasealAt the end of the February 1, 2016 Ann Arbor City Council meeting, Councilmember Sabra Briere wanted to alert people to a couple of bills that are being introduced in Lansing.  She said that she was working to bring a resolution to address them at the next meeting.

The bills she is referring to are HB 5232 and SB 720  which attempt to amend the Historic Districts Act.

Below, is the legislative analysis that describes the changes the bill wants to make.

2015-HLA-5232-analysis

state sealAs written at this time (but subject to change at the whim of the legislature), this bill intends to:

Add

  • the requirement for a preliminary approval by 2/3 of homeowners within a proposed district (currently no requirement)
  • the requirement for the entire electorate of the city to approve the establishment of a new district (currently this is at the discretion of the city council)

Amend

  • the composition of commission
  • the process of final approval

There is also a stipulation regarding an expiration date for the historic districts.  All new and existing historic districts will expire after 10 years unless a vote by the electorate approved their continuation.

Renewal of historic district designation
Currently, there is no end date for an historic district’s designation as such. The bill would add a provision that current historic districts would cease to be considered so 10 years after the bill is enacted, unless that designation is approved by a popular vote at the election immediately preceding its dissolution as an historic district. Likewise, an historic district established under this bill would be dissolved after 10 years unless a popular vote at the election immediately preceding its dissolution approves its renewal as an historic district. A renewal approved under this subsection is effective on the date that the historic district would have otherwise dissolved.

 

The Issue

First off, I want to say that I am a supporter of historic districts and appreciate their value to the city.  However, I do not think that everything that is old is historic. I believe that historic districts are supposed to represent the past, not cause ‘no change’ to occur any place around them.  The east coast is full of cities, large and small, that integrate modern architecture in with their historical buildings in a way that respects the historic and the present.  I don’t want to live in the past. I want to respect the past.

At times I think that local historic preservationists take things too far and use historic districts to stop ALL development including in areas outside the edge of the district.  At times I think they just consider the age and shape of a house as criteria for a contributing structure in the district instead of the Secretary if the Interior’s guidelines for deciding if a property is historic.  This overreach can result in a negative impact on the city and actually demean the concept of historic districts.

With that said….

CM Briere made a statement in her description of the bill at the council meeting that was different than how I understand this bill to be written.

She said that “these bills if they were to pass as designed would damage or eliminate all historic districts in the state.”

I don’t believe that is what these bills say at all.  Maybe she is privy to something else that is going on, but I don’t see that. What the bills intend to do is transfer the power to establish or continue historic districts from the city council and local historians to the residents.  The residents will now get a say, when previously they did not.  They will get to vote on whether they want their  home to be in a historic district and the entire community can vote on whether the existence of historic districts is a good idea for the community.

They only way CM Briere’s statement would be true is if those who live in the historic districts truly don’t appreciate them. If allowing the residents a say in their inclusion in a historic district causes the destruction of the historic district because they are not wanted and unappreciated, is that wrong?

Now, I am not going to argue the merits of whether this is a good idea or not. While I don’t live in a historic district, I do appreciate them to a certain point, but do get upset when the historic commission gets in the way of progress and new development that is the best interest of the city.  I am  simply writing this piece to point out an ironic twist on a topic that I am passionate about.

The Library Lot

2013_0930ADI have spoken out many times at city council about building a large tax-paying building on the library lot underground parking garage.  I am passionate about this. I think it is what the majority of the residents truly want and that it is the best thing for the city overall.

There also is an anti-development group that does not want anything built and is pushing a park at this site.  They are currently collecting signatures to try to force a vote on whether a park should go on this site. They are demanding  that the residents have a say and claim it’s more democratic.

In response to this group, CMs Sabra Briere, Jack Eaton, and Sumi Kailasapathy  sponsored a resolution at the November 5, 2015 council meeting asking for the sale of the development rights on the library lot to go up for an advisory vote of the citizens of Ann Arbor to inform Council’s decision.  The vote failed ¹ with  CMs Briere, Eaton, Kailasapathy, Anglin, and Lumm voting for it.

I think that the issue is way too complicated to go up as a yes/no vote to the people and said as much to council.  There has been 10 years of public process involved with this site along with financing and revenue issues that need to be considered.  A question simply asking ‘do you want a park?’ does not do the situation justice.  I believe that we have a representative form of government and that these complicated decisions are better left to council.  Council would know all the details necessary regarding why large tax paying building on the library lot was the right decision for the city.

What none of you know is that when I was writing my speeches for my speaking time at council, I originally used historic districts as an example of a decision that a city council would make in the best interest of a city even though some residents might not realize the benefits.  I had to cut that out simply for lack of time.

Irony

irony-bird1_thumb[1]I think it is totally ironic now that CM Briere thinks a vote by the residents might ‘eliminate’ all historic districts.  I don’t know what she is going to write in her resolution next week, but I assume she is against HB 5232 and SB 720 because of how she introduced the issue.

When I spoke out against having the library lot park proposal put up for a vote, I wanted to leave the decision to our local elected officials because of the complexity of the issue.   The elected officials represent the residents and are ultimately accountable for their actions. However,  Briere, Eaton, Lumm, Kailasapathy, and Anglin (who has since left council) all have voted against the library lot development rights in the guise of waiting for more public input from a public vote on a park.  They want the residents to legislate the issue.  They have doubled down more than once saying more public input is necessary and they wouldn’t support selling the library lot development rights without a public vote on the issue. (even though we have had 10 years of public input!)

However this new issue to amend the Historic District Act in Michigan is different in one way.  It calls for the residents to have a say in addition to the the people who have the controlling power.  Currently, a non-elected body, the Historic District Commission (HDC), has the determination over what people can and can’t do with their privately owned homes that happen to be in a historic district.  There is no accountability. The historic district commission has complete power. I can see why some residents might want a say especially if they lived in a city with an overly strict HDC.  Does the new bills HB 5232 and SB 720 help alleviate this problem?  Or does the end justify the means?  This differs from because those who have the ultimate power aren’t elected and don’t have to be accountable in any way to anybody.

So what do you think Briere, Eaton, Lumm, and Kailasapathy will do now?  They want a resident advisory vote for the sale of the library lot, but will they insist on staying true to that stance for historic districts? Will they actually flip-flop and contradict themselves?  Will they now say that this is too important an issue for the residents to decide  and then send that up to Lansing in a resolution?  My bet is that Briere, Eaton, Lumm, and Kailasapathy come out against HB 5232 and SB 720 because historic districts are so vitally important to the city.  They will not want the residents to have a vote on the existence of the historic districts. Yet, they ignore how the Library Lot development is so vital for the city and want to punt their job on to the residents.

It will be interesting to see how they spin the facts. How will they say that ‘no resident input’ on the existence/creation of historic districts, a decision that has a DIRECT financial impact on the residence’s pocketbook is acceptable, but a huge revenue boost from the sale of the library lot development rights from the initial sale and future tax revenue which can help pay for city services requires resident approval? (I won’t go into all the other befits of a development on the library lot at this time)

If this is presented at the next council meeting, I would bet there will be little press about it and there won’t be a public hearing.  A resolution being sent to Lansing over a  House or Senate bill is not all that impactful, generally.  However, depending where the votes fall on this, it will show Briere, Eaton, Lumm, and Kailasapathy’s true colors on how they really feel about public input or the residents having a say.

Keep in mind, the decision on the Library lot is currently given to a group of elected officials who are accountable. The Historic District responsibilities are currently given to a non-elected group that is unaccountable to anyone, including the city council.  I could see some on council possibly thinking that it may be a good idea to allow those who live in historic districts to vote on whether they wanted to be in one.  It adds some accountability to the process.

Should the residents always have a say, or are there times that elected officials need to take tough stands in the best interest of the city?  Why is a public affirmation over a park on a public piece of land more important than a homeowners say about what happens to their own home?

If residents want to demand a say by a public vote in the development of the library lot and take that out of the purview of council (which is where I think it should be) then residents should definitely have a say in whether they live in a historic district. It’s the same concept.  I think both belong under the purview of council because they are complicated issues and not a simple yes/no question for the public.

We shall see who the hypocrites are.

Now don’t get me wrong.  My point of all this is not to support the bills to amend the Historic District Act.  My point is to point out the contradiction that at least Briere so far has implied on these issues.  I  think pigs would fly before she ever supported the residents having a say over whether they want to be included in a historic district. Maybe people can pressure her enough to be consistent and come through with support for selling the library lot development rights without hiding behind the false notion that the residents need to vote on it.

The Library Lot proposal is going to back to council in about 2 months for a final vote on the sale of the development rights. Although there were enough votes (7) to move the process along to start negotiations with the developer, we will need 8 votes to actually sell the development rights which means either Briere, Eaton, Lumm,  or Kailasapathy will have to vote yes on the final vote (as long as others don’t flip their votes).

If any  of them proves themselves to be a hypocrite in regards to residents having a say in issues, make sure to point it out to them.  The reality is that historic districts are used to stop development in cities and these councilmembers are simply pandering to the anti-development crowd.  They will flip their allegiance to listening to you, the resident, for the sole purpose of pandering to a vocal minority group who has their own private agenda against all development.   If they truly believed that residents should  have more of a say by allowing them to vote on issues, then they would not be against the changes to the Historic District Act. They need to practice what they preach.

We shall see who lays their cards on the table if a resolution is brought to council addressing this issue. Consistency or contradiction.

contradictio in terminis

-MOTL

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¹Ryan Stanton, “Council votes 6-5 against putting Library Lot development to public vote Mlive Nov 6, 2016

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