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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Right verses rights: Remember the Alamo

If you want an example of shortsided Texans bent on destroying their heritage, to everyone's loss, just REMEMBER THE ALAMO.  
Dark skies have been gathering over our historic structures ever since they became a part of the past...

I hate to do it, but I’m going to break from my normal art/history/music theme to local Navasota politics. I serve on a local historical commission that is presently trying to shape a City ordinance on historical preservation. We are facing a rough road and some determined opposition, so I feel the need to lay down some of my own thinking and rationale for the ordinance we are trying to write. It is far from being complete, much less approved by the City Council. If it is to survive, we have to satisfy our detractors or at least satisfy those who might consider their point of view, and wonder if we have answers to their opposition. So here I go…

I’m going to go right to the rub, and it boils down to a few Libertarians who challenge government at any level, having any control over one’s private property. “It is my land, my house, my building” etc. When I was serving on the City Council, I proved that I relate to and am sensitive to this stance when I championed the losing cause of man who was fighting the City. The City of Navasota had condemned his abandoned house and gave him limited time to meet code requirements or suffer the loss of his property. He spent tens of thousands of dollars on the house, but failed to ever address the problems that had caused the condemnation proceedings, and ultimately the City was obligated by Texas law to destroy the house, and did so. It broke my heart.

The house was a historic structure, perhaps the oldest dwelling in Navasota, but had been terribly neglected. Note: Once a house is empty, it is very vulnerable to this kind of ordinance, where city officials become concerned about fire/drug/safety hazards. Ironically, things can be done, and stiff requirements imposed on an abandoned structure that would never be dreamed of on one inhabited by people.

Losing that battle was one of the few times I completely failed to swerve local government during my tenure as councilman. That hurt my ego, but the idea that our city had the right somehow to destroy personal property, really bothered me more. I wondered about U. S. Constitutional issues, like illegal seizure. I knew that the foundational problems of the house were not that big of a deal. I knew that tearing the house down actually hurt the City, as it took a house off of the tax rolls, wiped out a chapter of history, and created hard feelings with at least one family. But it turns out that the City can tear your house down, and it can, if it decides, forbid you from tearing your house down, even if you want to.

One of Navasota's stately Victorian "mansions," safe from the wrecking ball but not necessrily safe from bad taste.

I pouted for awhile, but at that time I had to resign from my position at City Council, and was busy designing parks and facilities for a whole sub-division. One day I drove by and saw the house was gone. It was a bitter pill, but my conscience was clear that everything had been done to try to save the house. The final blame rested on the property owner who had neglected, argued, whined, and then misspent his money on a house that had been irritating the neighborhood for years. The City had been dealing with the eyesore and “attractive nuisance to children,” as they call it, for a long time.

Here is the thing you need to know from this lesson: Often when the City acts, it is the result of a citizen complaint. A citizen phone call, or several of them, carry great weight on this kind of problem, as the City has to have justification, the true citizens’ concern to justify its actions, which can get fairly severe. On top of that, the City of Navasota now has an ordinance or code enforcement officer. The good old days of live and let live are gone. Property owners are very concerned that nearby neighbors maintain their properties so as to maintain the image and value of the neighborhood. “Property rights” are now leavened by concern for public safety and the greater good, and of course Real estate values.

This is the norm in most progressive new sub-divisions, where property owners buy-in to property and deed restrictions on purpose to protect the value of their own property. They give up a little freedom or autonomy in order to protect their investment. This preservation ordinance is the same kind of thing. So small municipal governments across the country are writing up zoning and sub-division ordinances, and appropriate codes to help keep their towns looking and functioning good, thus maintaining appearances, property values and the tax base with them. It’s good for economic development. Some surrounding towns do not have such ordinances, but few of them have the bones that Navasota has for exceptional charm and beauty, either.

While the wise eye of government weaves these codes to protect all of us, it is hard to ignore the elephant in the room: The tension between so called property rights, and the desperate need for historical preservation. After getting commercial and residential development under control, which is absolutely necessary to protect the City from slip-shod roads and infrastructure being passed off to them ( and creating maintenance nightmares) it is not uncommon for municipalities to consider the imposition of codes or restrictions on the whole town in general. And they do. Especially historic districts. It is good for our heritage, and it is even better for economic development.

Already the City government can, for instance, tell you what and how big you can build on your lot within the city. They can tell you whether or not you can even pull a permit to build, whether or not your building plans, sign plans, or driveway plans are satisfactory. The city can restrict who you contract to do work on your property. And on and on. And now, wisely, the City of Navasota proposes to govern how owners of historic sites maintain them.

On the legal side, it has long been established that the City has the legal power to do whatever it deems necessary in the name of the greater good. Now it is true that citizens have a say, but it is usually a minority that fights most of these concessions to necessary governmental invasion of our privacy. Bottom line, you have to trust the motives or vision of your City Council; The City won’t let me leave a bunch of limbs piled up by my curb. It's ugly, attracts vermin, and makes a fire hazard. I do not have the “right" to leave them laying around. I am required to cut them down to reasonable size so the limb guys can grind them up; Similarly, the City won’t let me leave my old 1950 Chevrolet truck parked by the curb, if it appears to be immobile, especially if it has a flat tire.

I’ll never forget the day that my art gallery downtown received the “Keep Navasota Beautiful” award. That same day I received a letter from the City ordering me to move my truck or it would be hauled off at my expense. And although I hated being reprimanded, the City was right… I just had been busy and neglected my property a little too long… The City has the right and the duty to keep yard refuse, vehicles, even the grass that grows over my curb, and the people responsible for them, in line… Until, some would object, it comes to historical preservation.

Heritage and Vision come together: Built in 1892 by entrepreneur R. A. Horlock, Navasota's Horlock History Center is now home of a local museum and the Texas Center for Regional Studies.

Two thousand years ago Paul the Apostle said “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Of course, I’m sure he had no idea the Romans would turn on and assassinate the emperor of the City and the Empire, Julius Caesar. He meant if you come to a town, try as best you can to do things the way they do them. If you move there, work with the traditions and paradigms they have established. When you scan these Victorian neighborhoods, where families have sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into these grand homes, you can see evidence of the love and appreciation for history and heritage it takes to make that kind of investment. They are rarely doing it for profit, but for quality of life. And when they make that investment, it raises everyone’s quality of life around them. They ask for little in return. But they figure importantly in Navasota's growth and vison for the future.

I have had a disappointing conversation with one such homeowner, who spent a large sum on one of our best Victorian mansions, only to fall out of love with it, and thus the town because of the poor quality of life that later became an insurmountable issue for their family. There was a drive-in grocery /service station next door, and the noise at all hours of the night became a daily nightmare. Because everyone has been allowed to pursue their inalienable rights, the city has let a pizza of zoning conflicts create a case of terminal bad neighbor syndrome… for both commercial and residential owners.

It’s time to step in and give our growth structure and purpose, and use our heads for the betterment of the town, and all of our lifestyles. But somebody has to be the willing arbiter… Some would have us do nothing. Several of them own big homes on Washington Ave, and have been quick to claim their “rights.” I suppose they would have no municipal authority whatsoever, the way they have protested much of what this council has tried to do. They resented the sign ordinances passed recently, raised hell over requirements to make permanent, attractive signage. Now they claim they do not want anybody telling them how to paint their historic home, or whether they can destroy or move it away. They choose to see the restrictions being discussed as aimed right at them, unable to join in a pact with all citizens for the greater good. They would take their chances with the future, let come what may. They represent the same thinking that has led our beautiful town to this clash of visions; “Rights” or collective right.

It is the opinion of many people in Navasota that our image and appeal as a city hinge greatly on our Victorian architecture which looms large on our major thoroughfares. Visits to other towns in the region are telling, as many towns are now in decline. Navasota looks great compared to many of her neighbors. Historic buildings were once a part of their landscape too, but over time poverty and neglect left them rotting and vulnerable to extinction. But Navasota held on, perhaps had just enough charm and financial justification to keep itself presentable. And more importantly, folks with the necessary resources moved here and gradually, decade after decade fixed up many of the old houses and downtown structures that we cherish today. They are a treasure. They make us special. They add somewhat to our collective value. They add a great deal to our quality of life, our property values, and our charm as a city.

They are an essential element in our community pride. In the past, home tours played a huge role in our marketing and tourism strategies. They still could. We all have a stake in their future. Hence the preservation committee, trying to write a preservation ordinance.

Navasota has lost a great deal of its architectural heritage. This old scale-house is all that is left of a huge cotton-seed oil plant, an important employer and the central industry in Navasota for many years. The sizable enterprise fell into disuse, and dispite preservationists' efforts, it and the original owner's mansion were destroyed or relocated to make room for the present Brookshire Bros grocery store.

Blessed with National Registry and State Historical Markers, the old Schumacher Oil Mill was levelled and the Schumacher mansion relocated, and both were lost to the town in spite of their historical significance and potential attraction for tourism. A lesson learned; There was no City mandate, no effective preservation organization with teeth to nurture any other solution than "off with the old."

The problem is, in the past, too many property owners did not share this concept, in fact saw their properties as mere dirt and boards. Bought and sold by the square foot. They sold their properties to investors who saw commercial possibilities, who tore down the old houses to make room for progress. Over the years we have seen important, grand, historic houses torn down or moved away with no recourse. The old Horlock home on North LaSalle, the Schumacher mansion across the street (where Brookshire Bros now stands), the stately Chappell house on Holland Street. Many less important Victorian structures have been lost, mostly because, (falsely) it was not considered feasible to save them. More recently two homes on Washington Ave. were destroyed to make room for commercial development. One development materialized, the other never did.

 A valuable part of Navasota’s architectural and residential heritage was lost forever when a commercial developer raced to acquire and prepare property to build a medical center that was never going to happen. Whoops. Now it is just a vacant lot.

Don’t get me wrong, everybody so far has acted within their rights. I do not blame the businessman who is just doing what businessmen do. I blame us for sitting by and letting, in most cases strangers and newcomers shape our city into… urban sprawl. They cannot help it if they do not get it. We need to get it, and find common ground and impose some kind of structure or yes, even limitations on what they can do to the landscape that we will live with the rest of our lives. So I have always been for protecting our historical assets for the good of the beauty and history of our town. But what does that mean?

It means that I hate the idea of one more Victorian mansion being moved away or destroyed for some scheme that does not have our town’s best interests at heart. Sure, sometimes they have to come down. But consider this: Every year the City of Navasota has to condemn and destroy scores of old buildings, many of them Victorian treasures that failed to become someone’s pet project and ultimately became too rotten or dangerous to restore. This attrition of our architectural heritage will gradually, eventually, block by block, steal our wonderful charm. Navasota is already suffering from modern blight. Surely there is a better way. It starts with recogniton of these losses and education of property owners about better options. Hence the preservation committee.

On my own block, where I live, there were once five homes and church. Three have been either destroyed or moved out of town. The couple next to us bought most of the block and proceeded to eradicate all neighbors and made sure they would never return, by removing the houses. (We were next!) It was their right to do so. One of the houses was an 1880’s two-story carriage house, where the family that originally owned my house kept their horses and buggies. Our neighboring property had been divided, dismantled and the history systematically destroyed. If enough of these kinds of properties are bastardized, within “owner’s rights” to do so, our town will eventually devolve into just another generic place. Navasota has a far superior future than to be a suburb with no lore kept alive, with no special stories told each day by the stately pine structures built by the town founders. But it will take agreement to accomplish this.

We will still have Navasota football and the annual Christmas parade, but we can lose our specialness by not trying to save our unique and enviable heritage. We become like Houston, or the Woodlands; a mundane, modernized place to live that has lost its identity and character, or just never had it. That’s not why I came here. That’s what I and many folks in Navasota left behind when they came here. People that would be so selfish as to demand they have the “right” to do whatever to “their property,” at our peril, with no concern for this town, what it is or what it wants to be, cut off their porch to spite their own house.

The old Freeman Inn, a stagecoach inn built sometime after the Civil War, stood near downtown where an insurance agency occupies today. It was dismantled around fifty years ago, about the same time Navasota went through a violent modernization, tearing down old school buildings, the old domed Methodist church, the old brick City Hall... must have been awfully depressing for histericals... How neat would that have been, to have preserved it, even for commercial use, to add character to the town? Towns like Salado and Granbury have saved such structures, and enjoy considerable attention and prosperity for doing so.

We are not trying to establish an ordinance to make large Victorian homeowners miserable, or financially bankrupt them, but to save the beauty of this town, of which their own properties are a part. Every generation has to make its own mistakes. I have shown you some of the thoughtlessness of the past, so you might understand why I do not trust the future to chance, or why I am not reluctant to save some property owners from themselves.

Amazingly, several owners of large Victorian houses have been quick to object to any historical preservation ordinance, and want “voluntary compliance,” (ineffective, I believe, and pointless) They already want to “opt out” of the ordinance, before it has been written or adopted. It seems not to matter what the code might say. They seem to be implying there is no ordinance that could be written that they would agree to. It’s the attitude of “I’ve got mine, to heck with the rest of you.” The idea that the City might have jurisdiction over historic building removal, modification, or superficial treatments, or would do anything to violate individual property rights is so repulsive to them they are willing to let the present policy of random, irreversible destruction of our historical resources continue. In short, they do not see a problem, and if they do, choose to do nothing. They have no desire to work with those of us who care about this issue.

The owner of this wonderful, historic house in Anderson had every right to sell off the house to the highest bidder, and see that it was disposed of, and in its case moved out of the county. It was once the grand structure that met those entering the town from the west, the home of German immigrant Christian Becker, who owned the Cotton Gin and brought many immigrants to Anderson. Now out of context, it has little value to its owners in Waller County, where it was not built, admired or lived in for over one hundred years.

Some people will never get it. Like the developer in Anderson that did not want the old Becker house, they shrug off history and the traditions and relics of our past, untouched by what we artists call "a sense of place." Some of them relish in this belligerence, finding the local "histerical society" humorous. As far as the general good of the town, that sort of stance makes their opinion irrelevant. It’s a shame, since we are writing this ordinance FOR them as much as anyone. I wonder if they would care if some businessman tore down a house that was zoned residential/ commercial next door and built an all-night carwash next to them? Or somebody painted their next door Victorian mansion chartreuse. That has happened before. People do the damnedest things. We have seen it here in Navasota in painful living color. I have watched one house in town go through several different paint programs over the past two decades; purple, royal blue, aqua, a color always questionable, and yet never finished once. How would you like to try to operate a bed and breakfast next to something like that?

I know, this is America, land of the free. And land of the tacky and tasteless. Land of the lazy, ner’ do well, live in it until it rots grandchildren. We are trying to rise above those kinds of impediments to our overall environmental beauty. We are doing this for the guy who lives next door, the tourist who is passing by, the home buyer looking at Navasota as a potential new hometown. AND we are doing it to show respect and appreciation to our founders, who gave us a tremendous legacy. At the worst we are idealists, do-gooders who may want too much, ask too much of those who do not share our values. But we have gotten involved, are working as volunteers for common solutions, and are proactive rather than reactive.

AND I am driven by the thought that even the Alamo, the single most identifiable landmark in Texas, if not America, was slated to be destroyed, because San Antonio, and San Antonians DID NOT GET IT. They had the right to tear it down and build a hotel, and that is exactly what they intended to do. A few little old ladies fought off the wrecking ball and saved the iconic limestone structure, today Texas’ most popular tourist attraction. Towns… actually townspeople, are often short-sighted and thoughtless, and sometimes need somebody to awaken them to the special things they take for granted. Sometimes, when it is handled right, people come together and voluntarily, in the spirit of cooperation, make rules for a better society, ordinances if you will, because it is the right thing to do, regardless of what rights others rightfully claim to have.

 It’s individual rights verses collective right. And both are important. But only one is pre-eminent.

Mance Lipscomb, Navasota's world famous bluesman, built this house for his large family out of recycled lumber. His descendants had every right to neglect the structure until the City exercised its right and duty to require demolition of it. Blues history enthusiasts had no right to intervene and save the historic house, perhaps the most historically important home in Navasota, and now it is gone; The result of doing nothing, no preservation policy to keep Navasota authentic, no plan to even TRY to save those sites most precious to our heritage.

We can argue until my shutters are Williamsburg blue again, and I could argue both sides. I believe in individual rights, as long as they do not negatively impact the rest of society. I moved to Navasota because of its regard for and place in history, as well as its charm and historic assets, which are a National treasure, and have always placed those qualities above profit or convenience. That’s why I am still here. even though I have watched a tragic amount of negative impact on this town by thoughtless modernization. It as been a real struggle, watching this beautiful town dismantle itself like a leper tossing off his rotten limbs. But I am staying, and people who do not appreciate this wonderful town and its special character are simply wasting their time here. When I meet new develpers in town, I think of what Darryl Royal said about TCU. He said, "They're like roaches... it's not what they eat that bothers me, it's what they mess up!"

In 1990, I purchased an 1881 Victorian home, of which I am the steward for a time, and have treasured and maintained it to the best of my ability to contribute to that legacy. I welcome a City Ordinance that will guide me and others in that pursuit, that will TRY to stop or slow down the wholesale destruction of local landmarks, and set standards for acceptable restorations and remodeling, just like the standards set upon homes in normal neighborhoods anywhere. Those standards will be set by intelligent, informed, even uniquely qualified citizens, to keep Navasota special, and curtail a hundred years of stupidity. There will always be those who object to anything government does, but thank goodness we have a country where we practice Democracy, a powerful concept, and in the end, might makes right.

UPDATE: It is one year later and our fight is over. The City of Navasota changed its plans and more or less disbanded our committee, or they quit, I'm not really sure. Preservation efforts will continue in other forms, but it appears no ordinances will be written or adopted, and things will continue as they have in the past. Win some- lose some. In this case "might did not make right." Political pressure from some property owners made the City change its vision for the future of our historical resources. Chalk one up for the Libertarians. It was their RIGHT to oppose the City's plans, even if they never knew what they might have been.


Ricky Bush said...

Very well done, Russell. You go guy1

ReynCush said...

Points well made and your argument now a treatise on the subject. Absolute freedom is not a friend to culture or civilization, but rather usually embraces anarchy. Cities and neighborhoods are not usually a good place to exhibit anarchy. Clearly, the city has the right to establish ordinances for the orderly prosecution of both commercial activity and the care and ultimate disposition of residential structures. Galveston is one city that got it, albeit belatedly. And today the Antebellum and Victorian structures define it as a city. Navasota has the inventory of Victorian buildings to make it a destination city, but they must be preserved -- by ordinance -- or the inevitable piecemeal destruction will continue. That would be a shame. And that is from a libertarian!