Hoisted From the Comments: More Context on Bethlehem Council Vote Against Mount Airy Demolition

Lynn Olanoff stops by to clarify what the vote was about:

Council’s vote was to not allow the home and barn’s demolition. If you own a property in one of the city’s certified historic districts (Historic, South Side or Mount Airy), you can’t tear down a structure or make modifications to it without the city’s OK. Council’s vote last night doesn’t put the city on the line for any of the renovations.

And Todd Dietrich adds some more context:

I was at the city council meeting last night and there was quite a lot of testimony that didn’t make it into the news article. As someone who doesn’t live in that neighborhood, here’s what I got out of what I heard at the meeting:

The city has laws to deal with vacant buildings with code enforcement issues. Apparently the city was not doing anything to cite the property owner for these issues over time.

The property owner doesn’t want the house, but they don’t want to sell it either, presumably to reuse the property. The same property owner also owns other historic/old buildings that they are letting fall into disrepair.

If city council would allow the demolition permit for this building, it would be setting a precedent that if a property owner buys a house they can just let it sit for a while so it will be “demolished by neglect” and then it will have to be allowed to be torn down, whereas it normally wouldn’t be had the property been maintained.

The neighbors in that area want it to remain a neighborhood, not a giant retirement complex, which is apparently what the property owner is seeking to do.

It’s an interesting point about the precedent that I hadn’t considered. The case for historic districts is supposed to be that when homeowners risk incurring fines for failing to keep up their properties’ historic facades, they’ll invest in keeping their properties looking pretty, or else sell to somebody else who’s interested in doing that. The incentive structure falls apart though if people never get fined, or the fines aren’t backed by some more drastic penalty like foreclosure. Then you could end up with a situation like this where somebody lets a property fall into such a state of disrepair that they “have to” demolish it.

I’m not a huge fan of Homeowner Association tyranny but in some places these kinds of groups have the legal status of quasi-governments who can collect their own taxes, issue fines, and foreclose on their neighbors if the fines aren’t paid. That sounds like pure hell to me personally, as a living arrangement, but it makes sense if you buy into the logic of historic districts. The idea is that these kinds of issues are indeed political, but the relevant constituency is the neighborhood not the city, and questions about who pays for what should be confined to actors within the neighborhood. In this case there’s a legitimate debate to be had about whether the property owner should have to pay for the restoration even though the property is so far gone at this point, or if the Mount Airy Neighborhood Association should have to buy the property and pay for the repairs from their membership base if they don’t want to see it demolished.

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