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Historic Preservation vs. Private-Property Rights

Tags Big GovernmentLegal SystemTaxes and SpendingInterventionismPrivate Property

04/15/2010Dave Albin

The recent battle between a property owner and the Morrison Historic Preservation Commission in Illinois has again reinforced the importance of private-property rights.

The battle centers around a property owner in Morrison who purchased four older properties along the main thoroughfare with plans of demolishing some of them, apparently for business-development purposes. The Morrison Historic Preservation Commission would not allow this demolition because the properties were located within the city's Historic District, and the city council "declined to overrule" the commission (although it now appears that, after months of meetings and wrangling back and forth, demolition on two of the properties may be allowed).

The reasoning behind historic-preservation ordinances was voiced by an alderperson who said,

I understand that this may not be in your best interest, but the council has to act in the best interest of the community as a whole — how this will affect the community 5 years, 10 or 25 years down the road.… There is all kinds of research to show that historic preservation pays off.

The most glaring part of this statement, of course, is the complete disregard for the wishes of the private-property owner — the person who has assumed all of the risk by purchasing older properties in hopes of converting them into a productive and useful business (as will be determined by consumers). It is also puzzling as to why this particular alderperson does not understand that the voluntary exchange of goods and services for money that would result from such development would surely "affect the community … down the road" in a positive way.

Perhaps this should not be too surprising, considering that property owners in Illinois (and most other places, too) must pay property taxes and meet zoning requirements, a sort of collective-ownership arrangement. Pay your taxes and meet the zoning requirements, or your property will eventually be taken from you. Instructing you as to whether or not development is permitted, in the name of historic preservation, seems to fall in line with these practices.

Other troubling statements were uttered at meetings on this subject. When providing more details on the rules involving historic preservation, the chair of the Morrison Historic Preservation Commission stated:

General maintenance and up keep on property residing within the District does not need to be brought before the Commission.… The Maintenance Zoning Officer is the gatekeeper. When you file for the appropriate permits, he [the zoning officer] will direct you to the appropriate applications and inform you as to whether you need to go before the Historic Commission.[1]

The answer to the next question, as to whether or not detailed guidelines on historic preservation were available, was more troubling:

Not at this time.

The chair went on to say that the commission has plans from another city available for viewing.

"General maintenance and up keep" are permitted (that this has to be stated is scary); however, as we heard from the chair himself, the rules governing historic preservation are not even written down anywhere. Guidelines from another city are pointless — the private-property owner surely cannot rely on these when he does not reside there. Thus, the private-property owner in the district is at the mercy of the "gatekeeper" in terms of what can and cannot be done to his own property.

Not only that, but the "gatekeeper" may force the property owner to go before the preservation commission and plead his case. With guidelines not even written down, this is truly a case of "living" legislation in the extreme. Private property owners must follow unwritten rules — rules that could change at any moment. Whether or not the "gatekeeper" or the preservation commission is having a bad day, for example, could affect what the private-property owner can or cannot do to property he has obtained.

Aside from these important practical considerations, the inherent flaws that come along with the disruption of private-property rights are clear. For example, property rights provide the foundation upon which conflicts are resolved, as Jeremiah Dyke's recent article on whaling demonstrated.

In the case of Morrison, the property owner has stated that he will not invest more money into his properties as long as they can't be developed. The owner has no incentive to develop, or even keep up, his property. Rather than working hard to create an enterprise that would benefit everyone through voluntary transactions, the owner may try to sell his property or simply allow it to fall into disrepair. This will deter others from owning property in the area, further exacerbating the problem.

The recent actions by the preservation commission against a private-property owner are nothing less than aggressive theft by a third party. The current and former owners of the properties in question here entered into a voluntary contract of exchange. The current property owner then was in the process of entering into voluntary, mutually-beneficial exchanges with his customers once his property had been developed. The abrupt disruption of this process, in the name of historic preservation, only reinforces the collective nature of American property ownership, minimizes human achievement, and encourages disputes.


[1] "Property owners gather to discuss 'A Contentious Set of Issues,'" Whiteside News Sentinel, v. 150, no. 8, Feb. 23, 2010.


Contact Dave Albin

Dave Albin conducts process development research and provides technical support for a food equipment manufacturer in Iowa.