Recently, in Portland, Oregon, a group of neighborhood residents formed a committee to try to have the neighborhood designated as a historic district. There are legal and neighborhood ramifications for such a designation, and we found how one homeowner managed the situation to be particularly interesting.
Portland is a city in the midst of seismic change. Development in the area has skyrocketed, and many longtime residents have voiced concern about the demolitions of historic, “Old Portland” buildings and neighborhoods taking away some of Portland’s unique character. Portland has always been somewhat protective of what makes it different, so the surge in development projects has risen the hackles of veteran residents.
Many homeowners in older neighborhoods have banded together and made attempts to have some of these areas designated as National Historic Districts, which are registered through the National Park Service. Such a designation would limit demolition of older buildings and restrict development in an effort to preserve the older homes, and thus the overall character, of the neighborhood. The Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association started the process a few years ago to stave off these demolitions and help keep housing density low. However, many homeowners opposed this effort because the national nomination process is one of ‘negative consent.’ This means that in the national process neighbors are assumed to be in favor of the designation unless they sign a notarized objection.
While the small, grassroots effort to declare the area a historic district did gather steam, many neighbors opposed the idea, stating their concerns about property rights. When the National Park Service designates a neighborhood a historic district, homeowners in the area have restrictions on what they can and cannot do with their property. The objections of several hundred homeowners are presently not being considered by the proponents of the designation. In response, an opposition group called “Keep Eastmoreland Free” has collected 500 notarized objections, about half of what it thinks it needs.
A Frustrated Homeowner’s Solution
Enter: Patrick Cummings. Mr. Cummings found a way to give himself 1,000 extra ways to object to the historic district designation. He divided up his property into 1,000 trusts. He now owns one-thousand 0.1 shares of his home, giving Mr. Cummings 1,000 opportunities to submit the notarized objections required under current Park Service rules. Mr. Cummings designated himself Trustee of each, and under Oregon law, multiple trusts create multiple owners. He took this step to oppose what he feels is a very unfair process which allows a small minority to dictate what individual property owners can do.
Proponents of the designation are, not surprisingly, upset, saying they believe the step Mr. Cummings took is the true affront to the rights of property owners. They accuse him of essentially “stuffing the ballot box.” Neighbors had until April 13th to submit objections, and the Park Service will begin reviewing the nomination on May 18th. Regardless of the way the Park Service rules, both sides of the argument are preparing for lawsuits and court battles.
Property Rights vs Historic Designation: The Lesson
When you are considering a home purchase in a historic area, take the time to research what – if any – designations and land-use restrictions you may have on the property should you decide to buy it. It’s also a good idea to search for related news stories and drive through the area. What kind of signage is on lawns, street signs, shop windows and parks nearby? Is this your dream home, or a red tape nightmare? The homes may be beautiful and evoke nostalgia, but if your values, ideas, and plans for your home are at odds with the neighborhood restrictions and culture, this may not be The One.