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Can A Stranger Designate Your House As Historic? In Oregon, They Can


Members of Keep Eastmoreland Free are fighting to prevent their neighborhood (and thereby their homes) from being turned into a historic district.

Members of Keep Eastmoreland Free are fighting to prevent their neighborhood (and thereby their homes) from being turned into a historic district.

Aaron Scott/OPB

In Oregon, you don’t always have a say about designating your house as historic.

Generally, only the owner of a house can nominate it to the National Register of Historic Places. But locally there’s a loop hole: Anyone has the ability to lobby the Portland Landmarks Commission and National Park Service to make an entire neighborhood historic.

If an effort by the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association to create a new national historic district is successful, hundreds of property owners could find their houses listed on the registry — with all the rules and regulations it applies — whether they want it or not.

The reason has less to do with traditional historic preservation than with stopping the changes going on across the city, such as demolitions, new infill housing, and “monster homes.”

“The board’s worked hard for about three years to try to get the city to deal with this through coding, zoning and through the comprehensive plan,” said the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association’s president, Tom Hanson.

“While we had considered historic district designation in the past, we had thought the other mechanisms were more appropriate to work through the city. But when they were not fruitful, then we moved to considering historic district designation.”

Yes, National Historic District protection could stop the demolition of houses, but it also comes with strict rules, design review and permit fees for any future changes.  For instance, if your house is designated a “contributing resource,” meaning it’s original and in the character of Eastmoreland’s ‘20s-era architecture, you might not be able to put energy efficient fiberglass windows in or solar panels or a skylight on your roof if it’s visible from the street.

You might have to get a permit to tear down a rotting garage. And, if you want to build something with those giant sliding glass doors like you see in Dwell magazine, forget it. It’s unlikely to be “compatible.”

A group calling itself Keep Eastmoreland Free has formed to stop the effort to nominate the neighborhood. They point out that fewer than 1 percent of Eastmoreland’s 1,500 or so homes have been demolished since 2003. The phrase they like to use is that they “don’t want their neighborhood pickled.”

“Eastmoreland was built and is continuing to evolve for 100 plus years,” said longtime resident Mary Kyle McCurdy. “We have all sorts of architectural styles here. There’s isn’t any one consistent theme or time period in which this was built or the houses were designed. So to call us all in one Historic District and freeze it now? Why freeze it in 2016?”

A lot of the heartburn arises from the process of creating national historic districts. The only way the residents of the neighborhood can stop it is by gathering notarized petitions from the landowners—50 percent of them plus one. Imagine a presidential election in which your only way of voting is by going to your bank and notarizing your ballot before mailing it in, all to vote for the candidate you don’t like.

The rules date back to the 1970s when the whole notion of federal incentives for historic preservation and historic districts first began. Districts originated as tightly focused clusters of buildings of a similar age and architectural style. Being part of a district allowed you to freeze your taxes for 10 years, and commercial developers could apply for federal tax credits for renovation.

Consequently, most of Portland’s 17 districts are tiny. Take the NW 13th Avenue District: it’s just six blocks long. It was established in 1987 and became the heart of, and actually jumpstarted the redevelopment of, what we now call the Pearl District. The owners used the tax freeze and credits to renovate their buildings, as skyscraping condos and offices rose nearby.

In Oregon, this system has played out in quirky, seemingly contradictory ways.

The state’s famed land-use laws compel local governments to protect historic spaces. However, in 1995, the legislature passed something called the “owner consent” law that prevents local governments from designating properties as historic without the owner’s permission. So while local governments in most of the rest of the country can create historic districts with varying degrees of protection, in Oregon, there needs to be 100 percent owner participation, making it practically impossible. 

But while local governments can’t do anything to create districts, individuals—for instance, the Eastmoreland neighborhood association—can go to the federal government for protection, and because of state law, local governments have to enforce it.

And neighborhood advocates who are unhappy with growth, demolitions, and new bigger buildings have gotten savvy about using Oregon’s laws with these larger and larger historic districts. In 2000, the Northwest District Association put almost 60 blocks into a national historic district. In 2010, a small group of Irvington residents successfully listed a 188-block area—more than 2,800 properties—as a national historic district. Then when more than 400 property owners petitioned to secede last year, the National Park Service turned them down.

Even historic preservationists are uneasy with this.

“I think that Portlanders feel out of control,” said Dan Everhart, the preservation programs manager for Restore Oregon. “They feel like there are forces working against them that control the destiny of their neighborhoods without their input, whether those be outside developers, or in the case of opposition to historic district creation, the imposition of a historic district upon them.”

Everhart calls it a “convoluted process” but “because it’s the only tool” available for preservation, Restore Oregon is in favor of. “Unfortunately, it’s just not the right tool, and it doesn’t allow for the kind of gradated protections that are possible in almost any other state and community in the nation.”

At the state level, planners are pondering ways to loosen some of the restrictions on homeowners who object to a historic district. Meantime, in the city’s new comprehensive plan, planners have proposed reducing the allowed size of houses in existing neighborhoods. That should cool the neighborhood advocates’ worries about more “monster houses.” But because of the housing shortage, planners are also proposing loosening zoning to allow for the so-called missing middle of duplexes, triplexes and courtyard housing. Eastmoreland’s historic district advocates say they don’t want that.

“Our feeling is that the density should be where it belongs,” said Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association member Tim Moore. “You’re talking about lower income people or younger people who want to rent or need to rent and they need to be where there’s good transit. This is a little oasis because it’s down here, and it’s just not appropriate.”

Members of Keep Eastmoreland Free disagree. However, should the National Park Service approve the historic nomination, the burden rests on them to collect notarized petitions from a majority of the neighborhood to stop it.

Correction: In the original story, we misidentified the speaker of the final quote. It was Tim Moore. OPB regrets the error. 

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