Sunday, November 16, 2008

A question of value

I received the following comment from a Connecticut reader pertaining to the Grumman-St. John House situation. However, it goes right to the heart of that uneasy argument between the preservationists and the property-rights people.

I'll keep this short: The value of a historic building is what someone is willing to pay to possess it.

The current owner placed a value on the property and *PAID* for it. He is now free to do with that property what he pleases to do (as long as it's otherwise legal). If that means tearing it down, so be it. You could have bid against him, you can still make him an offer to purchase it...

What I oppose is you using the power of the state to take the property he bought, or restrict his rights to enjoy the property he purchased. **EVEN IF THAT MEANS BURNING IT TO THE GROUND**

I'd hope you would have the courage and faith in your convictions to post both comments and let the public decide who is correct.

So, I ask you, the public: What do you think? What is the worth of someone else's historic building? What rights do others have to decide what happens to it?

Discuss. Commenters, fire away.

My response:

Yes, the owner bought the property and paid good money for it. Yes, he has the right to make decisions about how to use it, and to determine the highest and best return for his investment. I can see why the outcry by non-owners over his plans would be most unwelcome. I can see why he might neglect the place, considering he wants it gone, although willfully allowing vandalism is not going to help build his credibility or his case.

1. Was the house ever on the market independently, or only as part of a larger commercial property? i.e., was it available to someone who is not a wealthy business owner/investor with a huge line of credit? The house by itself might have been affordable, but as part of the Norwalk Inn property? Mmmm, probably not.

2. When furor erupted over the owner's plans, did he then offer to sell off the house (either onsite or as a moveable entity) so that someone who wanted to save it could obtain it? Would he even be willing to sell it at a fair price?

If not, you really can't argue that someone who cares about it should have bought it. I don't see any evidence that history-minded individuals or associations had or have a fair opportunity to buy it.

A few other economic considerations.

Did the owner investigate the landmark status of this building, or other special considerations, prior to purchase? Did he consider that there might be these or other obstacles to his plans?

Has he given fair consideration to reusing the house as part of his business? What would this do for his economic situation? What is the cost of renovation of the existing structure to fulfill some of his business needs vs. the cost of demolition then construction of a large new building? Has he considered alternate construction plans that either incorporate or spare the house?

As for the unfairness of government control, let's remember that the government already has some control over use of the property. The property is, after all, subject to property tax assessments and local zoning designations and ordinances. New construction on the property would be subject to building code inspections and government safety regulations. Does the owner have an objection to this type of control?

Government interference could also be much worse than a dispute about a building. There are countless examples of government seizure of private property in the past, such as condemnation of thousands of private properties by eminent domain to create today's military bases, railroads, highways, airports, and national parks. Often these properties were seized with very little notice (i.e. telling farmers they had two weeks to get themselves and their families and animals off property that had been in their families for generations). Often the buyouts were way below fair market value. More recently, the seizure of an entire neighborhood in New London by eminent domain made news. And who paid for all of this? We did.

Is government seizure and control of private property the right thing to do? Not necessarily. In fact, it was often blatantly unfair and took advantage of disenfranchised citizens with deep roots. But my point is that government seizure of these properties was intended to fulfill a public need, be it for military or transportation or recreation use, or economic stabilization. Think about it: Every time you drive on an interstate highway or swim in a scenic reservoir or touch down on a runway, you are benefiting from the government's decision to take someone's property.

Compared to this type of government control, the owners of the Grumman-St. John property are actually getting off easy. You really can't complain about Connecticut tax dollars being spent on a court case over this house. Billions have been spent to assume control of other people's property in a much more drastic manner. And frankly, nobody is going to like everything their tax money is being spent on. I can name plenty of places my tax money is going that I wish weren't benefiting from my largesse.

So, everyone else, I'll let you take over now.

No comments: