What Do a 19th-Century Brownstone and a Red-Cockaded Woodpecker Have in Common?

In a column we wrote a while back about the unintended consequences of well-meaning legislation, we highlighted one of the failures of the Endangered Species Act: in the lag time between when an animal’s habitat is announced to be under consideration for the E.S.A. and the protection actually goes into effect, landowners have incentive to prophylactically destroy the habitat. So if you own a few thousand wooded acres where, say, the red-cockaded woodpecker might like to settle down, it might be in your interest to clear-cut your land before the E.S.A. prohibits it. (Or you could just buy a whole bunch of woodpecker-deterring attack spiders.)

As Robin Pogrebin writes in The Times, the same dynamic plays out when a city’s landmarks-preservation commission announces that a certain neighborhood is being considered for protection: out come the bulldozers (or, less dramatically, the construction crews who’ll perform anti-historical renovations). Highlights:

At 178 Bleecker Street, part of a strip of 1861 houses that included Le Figaro Cafe and the top-floor studio of the author James Agee — where he wrote Let Us Now Praise Famous Men — the interior has been gutted, and the owner has obtained a permit to demolish the building. … “One of the frustrations is there is such a long period between proposing a district for designation, and the commission moving on it,” said Andrew Berman, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which made the proposal. “Inevitably a lot of properties are lost during that time period.”

Is such interim destruction merely the cost of doing government-protection business, or is there a way to prevent such unintended consequences?

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  1. Jonathon says:

    Couldn’t they post an injunction against any demolition or renovation to property (or habitat) under consideration? Should the property be deemed historically insignificant, then go ahead and do as you please. If you act maliciously while the property is under review, there could be a substantial penalty (loss of property, loss of capital, loss of limb).

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  2. Lee says:

    Reverse the law. Make it illegal to demolish unless the property has been deemed historically insignificant.

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  3. Caitlyn says:

    “Reverse the law. Make it illegal to demolish unless the property has been deemed historically insignificant.”

    Because *that* would be an efficient use of our time and resources

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  4. Joshua says:

    Pay people for the value depreciated by the laws…it’s immoral to do otherwise.

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  5. Mike M says:

    If you want to preserve the property intact, buy it! Otherwise let the owner do as he desires.

    Lee (from comment #2) wants every homeowner to PROVE that their property is historically insignificant! Who decides what is significant? I’ll go ahead and assume Lee isn’t volunteering to pay whatever costs are associated with his proposed process.

    What’s with people trying to GIVE the government more authority to arbitrarily make such trivial decisions?

    It brings to mind a favorite quote, “The opposite of freedom is not brutal tyranny, but capriciousness.”

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  6. X says:

    Why do they announce that they are considering it at all? Is it a public comment period? I can see the benefit of public comment for a historic preservation but not so much for wildlife preservation.
    Of course, this assumes that having a government administer historic building preservation is proper. It seems a non-profit, funded by community philanthropists, could negotiate “don’t f-up the historical nature of this building” covenants with the owners. The owners would have no incentive to destroy it during the negotiations because they stand to make money. If the owner and the non-profit can’t agree, maybe it was meant to be torn down. My best guess is that these exist but can’t compete for funds because of gov historical preservation efforts.
    On the other hand, I live in Miami, where the Orange Bowl was recently demolished. That felt deeply wrong. Could a group of citizens have scrounged up enough money to prevent that? I would’ve thought so… (Incidentally, it was torn down to make way for another stadium that I’ll be paying for involuntarily.)

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  7. Kevin P. says:

    Or – how about – repeal this well meaning law? Human being are more important than their buildings or animals.

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  8. Jackie says:

    So we should tell homeowners that they should stop profiting from their investment because the government may want to do something with their property? C’mon…

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