Demolition by Neglect
Demolition by neglect is one of the most common and challenging issues facing historic preservation and historic district commissions across the country. If properties within historic districts are allowed to deteriorate to the point of requiring demolition, the character of, and rationale for, the historic district diminishes over time. Thus, tackling demolition by neglect is crucial to the survival of historic districts.
Overt lack-of-maintenance is one strategy used by some property owners who hope it will lead to permission to demolish a building and reuse the property it sits on, often for a different and more intense purpose. Once a historic building has suffered extraordinary neglect, owners will argue that the cost of repairing the building in its deteriorated state is prohibitive and thus creates an economic hardship. And unless the local preservation by-law clearly defines what “economic hardship” is and how owners are required to prove that the hardship exists, communities are left deciding on a case-by-case basis whether economic hardship is an appropriate justification for demolishing a particular historic building.
Demolition by neglect may also be used by some property owners to sidestep the authority of their community’s preservation or historic district commission. As a building deteriorates, local building officials may be forced to step in and address the public health and safety liability by ordering the demolition of the neglected property, regardless of its status within an identified and legally regulated historic area.
Property owners may also abandon their historic properties for various other reasons, including simply not having the financial wherewithal to maintain the property, and thus allowing the property to fall passively into the demolition by neglect category.
TOOLS THAT HELP ADDRESS DEMOLITION BY NEGLECT
Enforcing demolition by neglect regulations usually require a preservation or historic district commission to prove that an owner is willfully neglecting their historic property. Unfortunately, many local preservation laws do not provide enough direction for their communities to effectively make these arguments. Thus, communities are increasingly adopting preservation ordinance provisions that (1) more clearly identify what actions (or inactions) qualify as “demolition by neglect” and, in addition, (2) affirmatively require property owners to maintain their properties to a defined standard, including what repairs will be required and how neglected conditions will be remedied and enforced.
In general, affirmative maintenance obligations within a community’s local historic district by-law ensure that (1) the beauty and function of contributing historic resources is maintained, (2) property owners routinely maintain their historic resources responsibly, following guidelines established for the district, and (3) the character and context of the neighborhood or area is preserved. By disincentivizing owners who might otherwise intentionally allow their buildings to deteriorate, affirmative maintenance regulations can be an effective tool in a community’s arsenal to minimize demolition by neglect situations.
Ancillary tools can increase the effectiveness of affirmative maintenance provisions and contribute to further minimizing demolition by neglect. These include tools that increase the effectiveness of affirmative maintenance programs, such as tax incentives, low cost or no cost loans, and grants that can help those property owners who meet the economic hardship criteria established by their community’s preservation law to better maintain their historic buildings.