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Preservation or Coercion? 

Manitou's Historic District polarizes property owners

Depending on who you talk to, Manitou Springs' recently amended Historic District Ordinance is either prescient city planning or an unwarranted infringement upon the sacrosanct rights of property owners.

Thanks to a petition by the Manitou Springs Property Rights Association, the district's efficacy will soon come before Manitou voters in the form of a ballot measure -- a date for which will be set this week by the City Council.

Created in 1979, Manitou's historic district comprises approximately 1,000 commercial and residential structures. In most respects, it is similar to the 2,000-plus historic districts that have cropped up across the country since the late 1930s.

What makes Manitou unique, however, is that until May it was one of only a handful of districts that gave property owners the right to opt out.

Swiss cheese clause

Some call this provision the "Swiss Cheese Clause." Historic Preservation cCommission member Neil Plass says it makes a mockery of the district.

"People don't opt out of zoning laws," Plass noted. "Say I want to protect my shrubbery; I can't opt out of water restrictions."

Others, like former City Council member Kerstin Eriksson, see it as a question of individual choice.

"If people are allowed to opt out, it won't ruin the district; there's still zoning laws that they have to adhere to," she said.

All sides agree that the right to opt out is the legacy of a political concession made when the district passed by a one-vote margin more than 20 years ago.

An amendment, which was passed by a unanimous City Council vote this May, does not force property owners back into the district. Rather, it stipulates that upon change of ownership, properties that were opted out will automatically return to the district.

Previously, new owners had 60 days in which to decide whether or not they wished to remain in the district.

Dictating aesthetics

Following the amendment, the Manitou Springs Property Rights Association formed in opposition. Members are quick to note that they are not against historic preservation. Rather, their objections concern regulations they see as both coercive and divisive.

"It comes down to personal philosophy and the role of government," says architect and Property Rights Association member Gerhard Scholten.

"When I see a building that was designed in cooperation with the Historic Preservation Committee, what I see is modern components from Home Depot that are essentially imitating someone's idealization of the past."

Resident Clint Lewis, son of former Mayor Russ Lewis agrees. "Something's changed in the last 20 years; we've kind of become a society that goes to City Hall to solve its problems. When you start dictating the aesthetics of houses, where does it end?"

But former Manitou Springs Mayor Bill Koerner countered that argument.

"The historic district has helped preserve small housing that's affordable and kept big starter castles out," Koerner said. "People are flocking here because it is so attractive. Why is it attractive? Because we protect out history, culture and way of life."

Members of the Property Rights Association maintain the opposite is true. According to Lewis and Scholten, the Historic Preservation Commission, which approves construction and renovation to buildings within the district, is composed of individuals who are concerned only with the value of their property.

Swimming along nicely

At the heart of the Property Rights Association's message is a concern over several new clauses that allow the city to enforce the ordinance.

However, the group is asserting the new amendment will result in drastic action -- even insisting that anyone who changes a light fixture without approval will "get fined and go to jail."

The group is distributing a flier that claims in part: "Problem: If you alter anything on a publicly visible portion of your property, including an ornament, fence, historic landscaping, etc., you must obtain a Material Change of Appearance Certification and approval permits.

"If you do not obtain this certification, you are subject to the Section 1.01.100 of our City Code (up to $1000/day, 90 days in jail) each day. Plus, you will have to pay for putting things back."

But Russ Lewis, the former mayor who helped pass the district, agrees the amendment is coercive.

"We were swimming along just fine for 20 years," he said. "Now what's happening with the coercive clauses is that bad feelings are starting to rise up. If Manitou had a historic district when the town was built, we'd all be living in tepees."

But real-estate and economic development consultant Donovan D. Rypkema, who has studied historic districts across the country, calls such assertions absurd.

"Show me one instance of someone being thrown in jail for a broken window," he said.

"Real estate gets its value not from four walls and a roof, but the context in which it exists. That's what a historic district does; it protects the context in which the individual property exists.

"Nobody is better at setting neighbor against neighbor than the property rights movement ... and I'm a real-estate, property-rights Republican."

You won't go to jail

What Lewis and others call coercive clauses, historic planners call "minimum maintenance standards" that they claim are par for the course in most historic district ordinances.

"They're clauses for slum lords or people who want to essentially demolish by neglect," said Brian W. Koenigberg, a historic planner who served as consultant to the city during the ordinance amendment process.

"It's not a clause that says, 'If you don't maintain your house, you're going to go to jail.' "

Charles Barsotti, a former historic preservation commission member and owner of The Antique Emporium, points out that "the leading proponent [of the Property Rights Association] is an architect, who instinctively doesn't like to be told what to do, doesn't like restrictions.

"The other is a real-estate developer. You can put two and two together there.

"Manitou is a very difficult place. We like to do our own thing and anything that smacks of regimentation is a red flag."

Clint Lewis, meanwhile, said he would like Manitou's Historic Preservation Commission to be more an educational group than an enforcement arm.

"They could lend assistance and say, 'These are our recommendations, not our mandates.' They'd get a lot more respect if they took that approach.".

-- John Dicker

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