When Edwin Dixon appeared before the Old West End Historic District Commission in early March, he was hoping to get permission to replace his damaged wood-framed windows with new vinyl ones.
After a lengthy discussion and a review of his proposal, the longtime Toledo homeowner and high school band director left the meeting with good suggestions of contractors who could repair his vintage windows but a bad feeling that his property rights were slowly being stripped away.
Mr. Dixon lives within the Old West End Historic District, an area of homes, churches, and businesses governed by the regulations and guidelines set down in Toledo's Historic Preservation Program. And like his neighbors, he must ask permission before he does repairs, replacements, or additions to his home.
Members of the Historic District Commission and proponents of preservation say these rules help maintain the integrity of the city's older areas as well as guarantee that newcomers won't change the "fabric of the community." Opponents of the districts' policies question the commissions' abilities to regulate and dictate how residents update their homes and use their property.
"Yeah, I want to help keep this area historic and no, I don't want to devalue my property by changing its historical significance, but I don't like the idea of somebody telling me what I can and can't do with my property," Mr. Dixon said.
"After they gave me the information about how to repair the wooden windows, I felt that was probably the better option," he added. "But I still want the decision to be my decision."
Homeowners in Toledo's three historic districts - the Old West End, Vistula, and Westmoreland - must apply to their respective commissions if they want to make structural changes to the exteriors of their properties. Other communities such as Perrysburg and Sylvania have similar commissions.
Toledo City Council designated the Old West End and Vistula as Historic Overlay Districts in 1980. In Westmoreland, residents have had to seek review of proposed changes since 1996. The city has 17 designated historic areas, but only these three are considered overlay districts and have commissions to oversee exterior construction.
Property owners such as Mr. Dixon must obtain a certificate of appropriateness before beginning work on improvements such as new windows, siding, roofs, or porches. About 9,200 residents citywide live within districts that require certificates of appropriateness. Of those, about 4,770 live within the Old West End.
Most reviews by the historic district commissions are completed within 30 days. If the request is denied, property owners can appeal the decision to the Toledo Plan Commission for a $25 fee, and then to the Court of Common Pleas.
Residents can't start the work until permission is granted. A lawsuit decided in 1998 determined that the commissions can't approve work retroactively. Those residents trying to do structural changes without a certificate of appropriateness can have their work stopped by the city's building department.
Ray Boezi sits on both the plan commission and the Toledo City Historic District Commission. He said those involved in making decisions about historic properties struggle to weigh the public interest versus the interests of the individual property owner. But the commission's purpose is to preserve history, he said, and that can't be done if all applicants are given permission to tear down buildings and homeowners are allowed to put up aluminum siding.
"I would agree that it's a pain to go to your local historical district commission; I can see the aggravation involved in that," Mr. Boezi said. "However, I would argue that the value of the Old West End is greater today than if everyone was able to do whatever they wanted to with their property."
His argument can be seen in the numbers. Real estate agent Judy Stone, who often works with clients in the Old West End, said buyers tend to get larger homes for reasonable prices. She said homeowners know going in there are rules, contained in a packet more than 50 pages long, to which they must adhere.
But what if the building is in such disrepair that no one wants to take on a costly renovation project, asked Paul Sieben of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
The Vistula Historical District Commission recently denied the church's request to raze two buildings on Summit Street, saying that razing the buildings would create a gap between the neighborhood and downtown. Church officials, who are appealing the decision, said that the commissioners need to be more realistic and less emotional when making decisions.
"A building, no matter how old or new it is, has a value if there's a use for it. But we haven't, at least at this point of time, found anyone interested in taking it on," said Mr. Sieben, president of the parish council. "I know the condition of the buildings and the condition of the market and the market on Summit Street is that, at this point in time, no one wants to come forward."
To date, preservationists said there have been several successful projects, including the Commodore Perry and the LaSalle buildings - a once-deteriorating hotel and a former department store made into thriving apartment complexes - and the line of buildings making up St. Clair Village near Fifth Third Field downtown that were transformed into a string of shops.
But the large surface parking lots that dot the downtown are proof that they have not always been successful, said Steve Shrake, a member of the Old West End Historic Commission. Citing the demolition of the Paramount Theater, known as one of the city's jewels, in 1965, Mr. Shrake said he doesn't want future generations looking back to the decisions made today to ask, "What were they thinking?"
Most people, once confronted with the decisions of the commissions, choose not to appeal, Mr. Shrake said. Since 2000, only six appeals were filed of the 782 cases heard by the three historic district commissions.
"One of the best-kept secrets regarding historic district commissions is that more than 95 percent are approved applications," he said.
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