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One of the terrific aspects of living in a neighborhood is how close the neighbors are. The down side, however, is how close the neighbors are.

Out in the country, a good neighbor might be defined by how well he keeps his dogs and his cattle on his own property. It's a live-and-let-live existence: Don't tell me what to do and I'll give you the same respect.

What’s the point?

In weighing whether to create an enforceable preservation district in Fayetteville, owners will give up some decision-making authority for their own properties.

In town it's a little different. Neighbors are close, sometimes really close. The proximity means a neighbor's behaviors have a direct and daily impact on property owners nearby. And in those types of neighborhoods, there's an informal social contract most will adhere to: Do no harm to the neighborhood. It works for everyone, because the healthier the neighborhood, the nicer place it is to live and, when the time comes, the better place it is to get a great return on what's been invested.

In Fayetteville's Washington-Willow Historic District, neighbors are still smarting from one property owner's decision to tear down a 150-year-old house in 2017 that had, over the years, been allowed to fall into disrepair. In a historic neighborhood, people who buy homes often make an assumption that all the neighbors have a high level of commitment to preservation. Although it can be argued that old structure was indeed too far gone, its removal invigorated some neighbors to press for more of a government-mandate style of historic preservation.

Soon, according to a recent story from the news staff, some residents of the Washington-Willow neighborhood will ask the City Council to designate it as a historic district with the legal power to enforce rules about how property owners can use their properties.

The strongest rule appears to be a most basic one: Nobody can demolish a building within the district without approval from the city's Historic District Commission. Proponents have chosen not get overly aggressive in creating regulations. For example, people wouldn't have to get the commission's OK on exterior paint colors. Interior remodelings wouldn't be subject to the commission's oversight.

Katie Mihalevich, who lives in the neighborhood, is among those leading the effort.

"The whole motivation is we want to prevent demolition of structures that contribute to the heritage and the integrity of the neighborhood," Mihalevich recently told a reporter. "We also want to have some controls in place so that new construction doesn't stick out like a sore thumb. We want the construction to be homogeneous with the scale and the character and the materials of the neighborhood."

City officials have basically said it's up to the neighbors. If a majority of the owners of 260 properties within the identified boundaries favor creation of the preservation district, the City Council will take up the issue. Of course, if there's an owner who doesn't want to be controlled more strictly, the majority-rules aspect probably provides little solace.

As neighbors consider the measure, the fundamental question isn't really how much control the neighborhood would like to exercise. That's a no-brainer, because it's always easy to be convinced that limits should be placed on someone else's property.

The real question each property owner must decide is how much freedom of decision-making over their own property they are willing to give up.

In a "normal" neighborhood, we'd chafe at the idea. Unless someone wants to chip in paying the mortgage, why should they have a say in any aspect of one's property ownership and management? But when someone buys a property that dates back 75 or 100 years and part of what makes it so special is its presence among other such properties, the case for a more unified approach undoubtedly becomes stronger. It's hard to dispute that one's property value in a historic area can be harmed by the actions of other property owners, if those actions diminish the historic nature that draws people to the neighborhood to begin with.

The idea of making yourself subject to a fine of up to $500 plus up to $250 a day for continuing violations probably isn't what many lawyers would advise. Most supporters of the measure, though, probably never imagine they'll doing anything deserving of a fine.

The valuable question for any property owner is whether there's a risk that once the camel's nose is under the tent, the rest is more likely to follow. In other words, will a regulatory commission tend more toward expanding its powers in the years ahead or keeping them static?

Even in preserving the past, there's no way to predict that future.

Commentary on 11/06/2019

Print Headline: The future of the past

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