2012-07-28 / Top News

Downtown Property Owners Divided Over Historic Districts

By Matt Mikus

Downtown property owners are divided over whether the city should adopt two historic preservation districts, and the Historic District Study Committee is in the process of looking at the issue and making a recommendation to the city council and planning commission. The planning commission may also make a recommendation, but it is ultimately the city council that will decide whether to implement one or both of the districts.

The two districts cover Market and Main streets from Fort Street to Windermere Point, and the residential district from Windermere Point west to the school, ending at the north side of Cadotte Avenue.

If the city adopts the historic districts, any renovations to a contributing historic building would be advised and approved by a Historic District Committee. Current members of the committee, which now governs the historic district in Hubbard’s Annex, are Chairman Andrew Doud, Christopher Straus, Brian Dunnigan, Jennifer King, and Robert Benser.

After the deadline of July 2, the city of Mackinac Island stopped accepting any public comment. The members of the study committee, Chairman Mike Hart, Sam Barnwell, Dan Wightman, Steve Moskwa, and Brad Chambers, met Thursday, July 19, to discuss and go over the information gathered and comments made in writing and at a June 16 public hearing. The committee will meet again during the week of July 30.

Eight letters from property owners in the two districts spoke against the formation of a historic district, and six spoke in favor. The city also received 71 comments in support from people living outside the proposed districts.

Many opposition letters addressed concerns of regulations impeding progress.

Steve and Patti Ann Moskwa prefer that Mackinac Island did not implement a historic district. Mr. Moskwa noted that the community has slowly evolved over the past 230 years, ever since the British built Fort Mackinac in 1870.

“We should not forget that our commercial district has always evolved, albeit slowly over the years, from a fur trading center, to a fishing village, to the tourist-related trade,” he said, “by rebuilding and replacing structures to accommodate our visitors with varied choices of hotels, inns, shops, restaurants, and residences in this unique setting.”

The city should accomplish the purpose, he suggested, through a full review of the current zoning ordinance to strengthen the building guidelines formed in 2011, and adopt a demolition ordinance specific to Mackinac Island.

Cindy Arbib Pierson said in her letter there should be continuity in the downtown area, but ordinances are already in place as to how buildings can be constructed and what materials can be used.

“The Annex now has its historic district and it seems the residents there are happy with the decision, as it was their decision to make,” Mrs Arbib said. “I would not presume to tell them how they should live or run their businesses, wherever they may be. I would only ask for the same consideration.”

Ira Green said the historic district is, at the least, a way to take away property rights and values without compensation.

“Our downtown properties have been subject to architectural review for years,” said Mr. Green. “It also appears that most of the downtown property owners in favor of the district have buildings that have already maximized their rights in size and use, and many currently have improvements that would not have been allowed in the district. If these owners won’t agree to redevelop their properties to meet the proposed standards, why would we agree to them?”

The Callewaert family, represented in a letter by Victor Callewaert, do not favor the district but said they hold the maintenance of the historic character on Main Street and Market Street “in the highest regard.” But creating a district, they believe, would impose unnecessary government control on a business community that often looks to solve problems locally.

“While Mackinac Island is a community that does not change quickly or radically, it does need to be able to change,” they wrote. “We, as business owners, need to be able to make decisions that will allow us to maintain a vibrant and thriving economic presence.”

Creating a downtown historic district, the letter says, would compromise the ability for businesses to change.

Robert Benser, Jr. wrote that a historic district would keep buildings in place that aren’t designed to stay in an ever-changing downtown business area.

“Some buildings downtown were never built to last 100 years plus,” Mr. Benser wrote. “Many buildings were not only built poorly to begin with, but they have never been maintained and are severely deteriorated. These buildings detract from the Island. They do not enhance the Island.”

Mr. Benser added that he is not opposed to a historic district on the west side of town or the east side of town, or creating a historic district for Market Street, but the property owners would have to agree to form the district in each area. He also agreed with adopting the recent design guidelines.

Cathy Arbib stresses that operating a business is becoming increasingly difficult.

“We don’t need another layer of bureaucracy infringing on our rights as property owners,” Mrs. Arbib said. “This decision should be allowed to be made by the individual property owners. If someone has a building worthy of becoming a designated historic property, then let them pursue this on their own.”

Andrew and Nicole Doud worried that the businesses would be burdened with higher costs, and businesses are already struggling to stay open.

“The cost incurred to be a politically correct historic district is astronomical,” Mr. Doud said. “No one could afford to keep their shops up to the specifications outlined by the study committee. Staying in business on Mackinac Island is terribly complicated now, let alone trying to keep our buildings per your request.”

The Nephew family, in a letter, signed by Frank and Joan Nephew, Nancy Porter, Cheryl Jaquiss, and Dawn Lehrer, worried a historic district would not be able to handle the diverse issues facing many of the historic buildings on Mackinac Island.

“We fear that any blanket Historic District policy would be unable to handle the flexibility needed to deal with the complex set of circumstances that are unique with every building,” the letter said, “as many are from different eras, are in different states of disrepair, and have been significantly altered over the years.”

The Nephews asked the city council to consider making an architectural oversight committee to accomplish the goals of historical integrity and business interests.

For the west end district, Douglas, Carol, and Katie Rearick wrote in opposition to forming the historic district. Each letter stated that the city should use “flexible interpretation of standards” used by the Mackinac Island State Park Commission for renovations and improvements, that the districts should be decided by a vote of the property owners, and that the city should provide any specific standards for property owners to read before moving forward with forming a district.

Property Owners In Support

Six letters from downtown property owners state the support of creating a historic district. Loretta and Tony Spata said they fully support creating the district, adding, “We love and care for our historic downtown, and our historic island.”

Two letters were submitted from Margaret and Mary K. McIntire, one suggesting that a vote of the property owners, proportionately based on property’s taxable value, should be held. It also stressed the urgent need for historic and architectural controls.

“It was clear to us attending the public hearing on the two proposed downtown historic districts that the districts can only be effective if supported by at least a majority of the property owners concerned,” the letter said.

The second letter states that the McIntires would vote in favor of creating the districts.

Robert Benjamin pointed out that changes would be allowed in a historic district. He noted that the city could not risk losing its designation as a National Historic Landmark, which he said attracts American and international travelers to the Island.

“Welcoming the suggested Historic Districts could be a step in the right direction,” Mr. Benjamin said. “Upgrades and changes would still be possible and desirable. We need to do everything necessary to ensure that we keep this national recognition and not lose the attraction that it offers.”

Anthony Trayser stressed that the history of Mackinac Island defines and provides for the citizens of Mackinac Island, both economically and culturally.

“We believe that we do, in fact, owe something to the people of our entire state and nation who come here because they love what we have accomplished and preserved,” he wrote. “They feel it deeply, and love our island deeply, and want that it be protected.”

Wes Maurer, Jr. wrote that the city should adopt the districts and move forward.

“There is no longer any purpose for public officials to sit in silence while the citizens slug it out,” said Mr. Maurer. “They need to take charge and lead the community toward a viable protection program that everyone can accept and enthusiastically support. They must sell the advantages of historic preservation and mollify the fears and concerns that come naturally with regulations. They must temper overzealous expectations of preservationists. They must build a program that will work here because it is accepted by everyone. That is good and responsive government.”

The study committee received 71 letters and e-mails from residents and visitors, as well as informational letters from historic preservation offices and government entities, all in favor of forming the two historic districts. All letters received by the city council will be part of the final report and are available for public viewing.

All of the letters also are posted on the Town Crier’s Web site in the left-hand tab titled “Historic Preservation Documents.”

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