Historic preservation laws lead to deterioration, so does involuntary conservation

In Naperville, a suburb of Chicago, local activists succeeded in stopping the development of a mixed-use (residential & commercial) development last month. Their means: putting political pressure on local politicians to designate the aging structure currently on the property an historic landmark. Henceforth, the property owner cannot make any change to the building without permission from the local government and, as a practical matter, support from the activists. Naperville’s designation, of a 119-year-old former library, will not only restrict housing development but will also speed up the deterioration of the structure.

The library, which had most recently been a church, has been vacant for fifteen years. During that long vacancy, the property has deteriorated. According to the Chicago Tribune, the repairs required to restore the building would cost three times what it is worth. The property owner, who originally planned to keep the historic façade as part of the new development, has little reason to throw a million dollars away on a building worth a fraction of that. So the most likely result is that the building will continue to deteriorate until it has to be torn down completely.

What does this have to do with the environment? The same incentives that make historic preservation laws counterproductive also make much environmental regulation just as ineffective.

Under historic preservation laws, allowing a structure to age creates a significant liability for property owners, a condition which is easily avoided. The laws ironically encourage the destruction of buildings just before they would potentially be subject to designation. So too with many environmental regulations. Burdensome Endangered Species Act regulations encourage the preemptive destruction of habitat before it can be designated for the species’ protection.

Historic preservation laws can also speed up the destruction of designated buildings, by making maintenance more difficult and expensive without any compensating benefits to fund repairs. The same is true of many environmental regulations. Simply banning the use of land won’t necessarily preserve it in a condition that anyone would value. Conservation lands have to be maintained as well. Invasive species have to be kept at bay. Habitat must be restored and wildlife reintroduced or recovered. Slapping burdensome environmental regulations on private property doesn’t generate the resources needed for this restorative work. Instead, it breeds ill will that makes the work less likely.

Both are also subject to political manipulation. Historic designations often benefit the wealthy and politically connected at the expense of those without political influence. Burdensome environmental regulations are also more of a hindrance for poorer or less sophisticated property owners than wealthy corporations with armies of lawyers to help them navigate the red tape. Both also empower NIMBYs to stop projects they dislike for reasons having nothing to do with historic preservation or conservation.

Historic preservation laws have long been opposed by libertarians and property rights supporters. More recently, liberals have joined the criticism. A Salon article, for instance, criticizest historic preservation laws:

Restricting development in pricey neighborhoods . . . not only cements a city’s best sections as enclaves for the rich, it has wider anti-urban reverberations. It promotes suburbanization by pricing out the middle class. It prevents densification, the greenest, most efficient use of space and the defining characteristic of cities. And less density makes walkable, retail- and transit-oriented neighborhoods harder to sustain (though admittedly, this would never be a problem in a place like the Village, which is already far denser than most cities.)

Free market environmentalism presents a similar opportunity for cross-ideological alliances. Markets and property rights enable environmentalists to protect their values without the conflict that has become inevitable with regulation. And, unlike regulation, free market environmentalism treats the environment as an asset, rather than a liability, creating the incentives that make protection and restoration possible.