*The following is a column from Representative Bill LaVoy on the issue of historic districts in Michigan and current legislation that seeks to erode them.*

Despite proponents’ claims, new legislation would weaken historic districts and increase costs for local governments. It also would have a negative effect on tourism, which is one of Michigan’s biggest industries.

Michigan’s historic districts drive economic development, attract residents, create a sense of place and enhance the quality of life for residents and their surrounding community. This concept is so well known that 78 communities across Michigan have enacted local ordinances to protect historic assets over the 46-year life of the law. Local control is preserved in the current law. House Bill 5232 seeks to change the rules for historic districts, giving big developers more options and eroding the ability of homeowners to protect their homes and neighborhoods.

The average American’s largest financial investment is their home. All houses need regular maintenance. Historic homes may need special treatment, and homeowners who have purchased homes in local historic districts have chosen to accept this and occasional additional costs because the historic district is an entity that helps to maintain the value of the home. Altering the statute that protects the value of their investment is unfair.

Secondly, I believe the proposed legislation would increase costs for local government. Local governments would be required to hear appeals, as opposed to the neutral state board. This amounts to an unfunded mandate from the state costing local government staff time and could subject them to pressure from local development figures. The current system of allowing appeals to be heard at the state level has proven to be reasonable and effective over the last 46 years. There is no reason to change it other than to attempt to empower some real estate development organizations.

Lastly, there is ambiguity in the legislative language about what standards would be required for rehabilitation of historic buildings. Federal rehabilitation tax credits are available to property owners of commercial buildings that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. To participate in the tax credit program, the property owner must comply with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. These standards are the same ones local historic district commissioners currently use to review projects, so for federal tax credit projects in local historic districts, the review process is streamlined — both reviews use the same standards. There are several other guidelines that could potentially be followed, and the lack of clarity for district commissions could create situations where confusion costs property owners by reducing their federal tax credits. The language should be changed to make the U.S. Department of Interior rehab standards mandatory, as they are today.

The State of Michigan has a 46-year record of success with historic districts. The changes proposed by HB 5232 could unfairly jeopardize the value of homeowners’ property, risk the availability of federal tax credits to commercial property owners within historic districts, have a negative effect on tourism and place an unfunded mandate on local government. For these reasons, I cannot support HB 5232.

Bill LaVoy is currently serving his second term representing Michigan’s 17th House district, which includes many historic districts as well as the River Raisin National Battlefield Park.