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Wednesday, September 12,2001

Bulldoze old buildings

Bulldoze old buildings
Jefferson County forces preservation

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by Wayne Laugesen (letters@boulderweekly.com)

Here's some advice to Jefferson County property owners: Tear down old houses, garages, storage sheds, guest houses, barns, chicken coops or outhouses. Bulldoze them now, unless you treasure them so much that you would voluntarily give up future building opportunities or profits from your land in order to preserve them. If you intend to preserve an old structure, for the rest of your life, then you have nothing to fear. But if you have other plans, you might be forced to preserve some old dilapidated shack, at the expense of your future, unless you demolish it fast.

It's not that historic preservation is a bad thing, by any means. Good citizens have traditionally taken great pride in preserving and fixing up old buildings and homes, rather than replacing them with new ones. Often restoration and preservation prove more costly than new construction, yet it's an option consumers exercise frequently. All over the United States one can tour old train depots and school houses that long ago outlived their purpose. A TV show called "This Old House," about the renovation of old homes, was such an overnight hit that original host Bob Vila earns millions each year doing endorsements. Suffice it to say, Americans love old homes and buildings and have shown tremendous willingness to spend loads of cash, voluntarily, in order to preserve them.

What we don't need, therefore, are local tyrants telling us which old buildings and homes have value and then dictating what we do with them. Few private citizens enjoy tearing down old structures of any kind. When they do so, it's for good reason. Sometimes they can't afford to fix them, ensure structural integrity, and forego more viable options for their land. Sometimes they simply don't believe the sentimental value of a structure justifies exorbitant use of resources that might otherwise fund a retirement or a child's education. A great variety of circumstances lead some private property owners to raze old structures, rather than preserve them. The good news is, in a free market of property, ideas and opportunity, millions of people choose preservation without the slightest amount of goading or force from paternalistic politicians and bureaucrats.

Yet in the past two decades, politicians and bureaucrats at the federal, state, county and municipal levels, have taken it upon themselves to regulate historic preservation anyway. They have done so because it gives them control, which wins favor among an electorate that's largely devoid any principled understanding of liberty. It wins votes among suburbanites who drive Suburbans between their sanitized office settings and their cozy middle class homes in neighborhoods regulated by homeowners' associations. These people don't design their own homes, they don't build their own homes, and they don't dare cross the homeowners' association by even asking to erect something so radical as a storage shed.

Average American suburbanites live in oppression and they don't even know it. They're owned and controlled by restrictive city codes and petty neighborhood meanie clubs they joined voluntarily. They are fully accustomed to having someone else tell them what to do and how to live. If ever freed from this, they wouldn't know what to do with themselves. They'd be like fabled inmates who finally escape from prison only to find they coped better on the inside.

Contrast these suburbanites-who soon will comprise the majority of Americans (Al Gore was counting on them!)-with those who comprise the diminishing rural culture. These are people who live away from urban neighborhoods in the mountains and on the plains. Rural people are different. Unlike suburbanites, they value their constitutionally-protected property rights as a gift from God that frees them from The Man so long as they're on their own land. They would rather die than surrender all decisions about home, driveway, garage and tool shed to whomever runs the homeowners' club.

These people don't bother anyone. Their lives and their properties lend spice to a country of sprawling, bland suburbia. These properties often contain charming old farm buildings and cottages precisely because the owners have preserved them and rejected opportunities to develop suburban neighborhoods or subdivisions. We can thank them for historic preservation.

But we don't thank them. Instead, we try to screw them out of their lifestyles and future opportunities by imposing needless and harmful regulation. If we're not forcing them to preserve prairie dogs that migrated to their land to make room for the suburban subdivisions, we're forcing them to renovate and preserve their old farm buildings forever more.

And that's why property owners in Jeffco should start demolishing buildings while they still can. You see, the handwriting is clearly on the wall. In what seems like a harmless and fashionable interest in historic preservation, Jefferson County Historian Cathleen Norman has been told to survey all of Jefferson County in order to photograph and identify properties for possible historic preservation. She will examine some 4,000 homes and buildings, and anything dubbed "historic" will be entered into the county's mapping system.

Of course this will primarily affect rural residents of the county, as the vast majority of suburban residents live in modern homes built within the past three decades. And here's what happens when the old chicken coop ends up as an "historic" structure in the county's data base. Farmer Charlie goes into Golden for a demolition permit one afternoon because he needs to build a more modern chicken coop in order to keep his poultry operation viable. Moments after filling out a form, a clerk says: "Sorry Charlie, that building shows up as 'historic,' and your request will have to be reviewed by the historic preservation committee."

Committee members, of course, couldn't care less about Charlie, his lifestyle, his property rights, and the needs of his chickens. They care only about preservation. And because Charlie has rejected suburbia and all its stands for, he owns old buildings that can be called "historic" and therefore can be fully regulated by the county. The very chicken coop that he chose to save for decades on end has now survived long enough to haunt him. The nearby suburbanites cheer the preservation committee for trampling on Charlie, conveniently ignoring the fact their own new neighborhoods occupy old farmsteads that once featured chicken coops and prairies dogs.

Rural Colorado residents are routinely forced, by government regulation, to preserve what's left of history-whether it's prairie dogs or farm sheds. They find themselves in this predicament precisely because they have rejected urban sprawl in favor of rural lifestyles. It's no wonder, when faced with the prospect of being forced to nanny prairie dogs for the rest of their lives, they tend to kill the critters en masse, even though they've lived with them peacefully for decades.

If Jefferson County wants to preserve privately-owned structures, it needs to buy them on the open market or through condemnation. Forcing preservation, by any other means, is an unlawful takings of private property. And while old buildings are important, old laws-such as private property rights-are more important. So have at it property owners. Tell county commissioners to call off the survey. If they refuse, start your bulldozers.

Send letters to the editor to: letters@boulderweekly.com. Fax: 303-494-2585. Snail mail: Boulder Weekly Letters, 690 S. Lashley Lane, Boulder, CO 80305. Contact Wayne Laugesen at Wayne@Laugesen.com.

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