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?


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).


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


"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


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

Mike M

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."


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.)


Kevin P.

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


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...


actually, those attack spiders may work pretty well to ward off ESA enforcement officers


This reminds me of a story a friend from Harvard told me. There are apparently some buildings on the campus that the administration have been itching to tear down/renovate for some time because they are so old and are in need for an update. However said buildings were apprently designed by some well-known architect and so were designated a historic monument. Now every time Harvard has plans to deal with these buildings, local architect buffs crawl out of the woodwork and get the local government to block any changes, all in the name of historical preservation. End result is the university is stuck with aging buildings no one wants to live or work in, taking up space and resources better used elsewhere.

Anyone able to fill in the details?



The solution there is to put up a fence and stop maintaining those buildings altogether. Unless the buildings are solid stone, weather will render the point moot in about a decade.


It's amazing how many self righteous people love to take money from other people for their own benefit. I risked my life's saving and bought property in area zoned for 120 foot buildings with the plan to have 60 foot buildings built. When I objected to lowering the zoning to 35 feet, I was “greedy.” The “good citizens” wanted to preserve the “character of the neighborhood” (this area was officially considered blighted.) They saw no irony in characterizing me as greedy and the fact that I had rid the neighborhood of approximately 10 drug dealers was irrelevant.
Fighting this battle (and eventually "winning") cost about $5000/month for a year and a half.


This matter was examined by the Productivity Commission a few years back with respect to the heritage listing of Australian properties:


The problem identified is that while private properties may be heritage listed for the benefit of the public, the private owners must bear the costs involved, including having to seek approvals for repair/maintenance and limitations on what can be done with the property. Having one's property heritage listed can be seen as a negative for many owners, and I've heard stories of properties that were coming up for heritage listing suffering from suspicious fires, or owners letting their heritage listed properties fall apart until they no longer had heritage value.

The Commission suggested that if the owner of a property to be heritage listed felt he or she would face unreasonable costs as a result of the listing, a negotiated conservation agreement could be put in place, where the listing body and the owner could come to agreement about maintenance costs.



Clearly, owners need to be compensated the loss in value. After all, everything has a cost. The government (which remember, technically represents the public) shouldn't have the ability to say "This has value so you lose." I'm okay with it, however, saying "This has value that exceeds what you lose with what you want to do, so we'll cover your loss." After all, if you don't believe it's intrinsic value truly exceeds that of what the owner wants to do, then you should be okay with letting the owner do whatever they want with it.


the reason for the phenomenon is that the landowner has greatly reduced options after their land is rezoned. Therefore I agree that in order to keep the bulldozers at bay, government or special interest groups should purchase the land/ bldg.


I can't tell a lie...I bought a 200 yr. old hewn log home several years ago. When the previous owners handed me the applications they had completed (but yet to send in) to have the structure named a national historic site (and a state historic site...and a local historic site...etc.), those documents were conveniently lost.

Bottom line, I love my home the way it is, but there was no way I was going to give up the flexibility to make changes to it as my needs/family change.