Historic Preservation Local Historic District Preservation Board

Local Historic Ordinances Require Education

by Michael R. Allen

One issue that constantly comes before the city’s Preservation Board is that of the contractor ignorant of the city’s local historic district ordinances. Time and time again, residents are caught by neighbors or building inspectors having just installed vinyl or glass block windows, clad cornices in aluminum, reconfigured double entrances with one doorway or some other violation of the ordinances (and often of good taste) and without a permit.

When brought to the Cultural Resources Office for adjudication, the homeowners usually appeal their cases to the Preservation Board. The most common defense used by these building owners is that their contractors assured them that the work was legal. (For now, I’ll leave aside the aesthetic issues involved in dreadful remodeling projects.) Contractors routinely flaunt historic district ordinances out of ignorance. Building owners are equally ignorant, and don’t think to question the words of trusted professionals.

While the volume of these cases is moderate, perhaps some education is in order to prevent this routine occurrence as much as that is possible. It’s clear that contractors are not required to know about local historic district ordinances in order to get licensed in Missouri. That could change by requiring knowledge of the ordinances by contractors who want to work in the city.

Building owner education is also in order. Many people are not aware of the restrictions of the ordinances, nor of the benefits of local and national historic district status that allows them to use state historic tax credits for rehab work. Perhaps the city government would be interested in creating an educational program for this purpose under the Cultural Resources Office. While property owners often have only themselves to blame, the number of historic district ordinances is growing, and the ordinances themselves aren’t always clear to people who lack familiarity with building materials and architectural jargon. It’s easy for people observing a Preservation Board hearing to sympathize with property owners who wrongly removed wooden windows to install vinyl ones with aluminum wrapping on the brick-mold. The enforcement of the ordinances seems punitive rather than supportive, and education could be key to changing public perception.

Of course, even better would be a basic citizen’s course in property ownership covering historical designations, basic architectural information, building and zoning codes, home repair and financial planning. That’s a big and expensive program, so for now I’d be content to see the city try to provide better education about historic district ordinances.