Local Historic District Abolished

Precedent-Setting Victory for Property Rights

MONTEREY, VIRGINIA— On December 19, 2002, the Monterey Town Council voted 4 to 2 to abolish the town’s historic district. In a public meeting, with members of the Highland County Board of Supervisors and the Highland County Planning Commission present, Council pointedly ignored the Planning Commission’s unanimous recommendation to retain the district in the zoning plan. The vote was a precedent-setting action which is generating repercussions throughout the Commonwealth.

The Monterey Historic District, in place since 1981 and encompassing the whole town, was one of about 200 local districts throughout Virginia. Dr. Robert Carter, Director of the Community Services Division, Virginia Department of Historic Resources in Richmond, stated: “Our department is not aware of any other local government in Virginia that has dissolved its local historic district.”

Monterey (est.1848), a small Allegheny Mountain community in the western part of the Commonwealth, is the county seat of one of the most sparsely-inhabited rural counties in the east, with a total county population of approximately 2,600 and an economy mainly based on cattle, sheep and timbering.

For 20 years, town residents and property owners have chaffed under what has been termed an “unneeded layer of government.” A majority of residents were fed up with what they called “arbitrary decisions”, “ego clashes”, “arrogance” and “bureaucratic restrictions” on economic development, home improvements and private property rights by the Architectural Review Board (ARB) which applied Historic District “Guidelines” for new construction, renovation and demolition. The “Guidelines” were, in fact, not guidelines, but enforceable local regulations patterned on federal and state standards, and their formulation and publication were partially funded through the National Park Service.

The ARB was headed by Donovan Hower, a retired federal bureaucrat and former county planning commission member. He has advocated increased local taxation, promoted federal and state interference in local decisions and more controls on agriculture interests, and has lobbied for an additional historic district to control private property use in the village of McDowell. The village is the site of the Battle of McDowell, a Confederate victory during Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign. Until recently, Mr. Hower served as the Secretary of the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District Commission, a surrogate agency for the National Park Service, which is acquiring and promoting control of private Valley land associated with “historic battlefields”. He was appointed by the radical environmentalist Bruce Babbitt, former Secretary of the Interior under President Clinton.

In addition to the historic district, Monterey was designated as one of twenty-eight DHR Certified Local Governments (CLG). According to the DHR, “The [CLG] program was created by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, as amended in 1980, and establishes a partnership between local governments, the federal historic preservation program, and the Department of Historic Resources…[allowing] local governments a way to participate more formally in the state and national historic preservation programs.”

The “programs” include an array of “tax-credits”, “grants” and “educational” efforts, many of which promote and implement federal, state and local controls of private property under the banner of historic preservation (conservation) easements, preservation planning, and economic/tourism development and promotion.

Due to the action of the Monterey Town Council, Dr. Carter stated the CLG status will probably be cancelled because “one of the benchmarks for certification under the federal certified government [program] is that the local government has an [historic district] ordinance…and it’s certainly the first time in Virginia that a Certified Local Government has done it.” [acted to revoke its local historic district]

A heated debate over the dissolution of the Monterey Historic District began in March, 2002, but has simmered for years. The debate centered on options to eliminate the district, modify its impact and boundaries, or keep the entire town within the district. It was punctuated by temper tantrums and emotional outbursts from a small group of tourism-related special-interests, preservationists and newly-arrived suburbanites, and further inflamed by what was widely seen as biased reporting, inaccuracies, omissions and one-sided editorials from the Monterey newspaper, The Recorder.

The newspaper leveled what residents considered unfounded accusations of unethical conduct, violation of the law, imprudence, arrogance and low-level political maneuvering against the Mayor and Council members who favored eliminating the historic district. At one point, Monterey Mayor Janice Warner refused to speak with the newspaper due to the paper’s blatant distortions and refusal to print her comments. Councilman Francis Fenn stated in the September 13, 2002 issue, “My main problem is...what was said in that editorial was basically not true…You are just trying to keep a controversy going.”

An April public hearing degenerated into a chaotic frenzy of rudeness when preservationists shouted down the Mayor and Council, calling the hearing a “farce” and storming out of the meeting room.

Throughout the public hearing, and during the nine-month long, county-wide debate, Mayor Warner stood out as a polite, level-headed public servant—in stark contrast to belligerence clearly intended to intimidate and humiliate her and Council members.

Dire predictions by pro-district forces filled the newspaper’s pages, claiming if Monterey should break its ‘holy covenant’, federal grants, subsidies, tax rebates and technical assistance would be cut off and the entire county would likely be cast into ‘the fiery pit.’ Property values would fall off the charts, unscrupulous developers would turn the “unique” community into a clutter of crass commercialism, the ‘healing river’ of tourist dollars would go dry, town and county insolvency was imminent, and the end of the world was nigh.

Amidst apocalyptic prophesies of doom, another contest was coming to a head. Town elections were scheduled for early May, 2002. At stake were the mayor’s and all six council seats. Mayor Warner, along with incumbent Councilmen Francis Fenn, Tony Stinnett and Bill Niswander, who each expressed reservations about the wisdom of retaining the district, were overwhelmingly reelected. Council members Tom Atkeson and Jean McWhorter, who strongly supported a historic district, were soundly defeated. Mr. Atkeson, in a bid for Mayor Warner’s job, was sent home with his tail between his legs. Two other pro-district candidates were also defeated. Mrs. McWhorter, in a subsequent letter to the editor of The Recorder, alleged the Mayor’s and Council’s actions were somehow comparable to Hitler building “so many smokestacks.” Mr. Atkeson, in his own letter, termed the Mayor’s and Council’s actions “cowardly and despicable.”

But at the polls, Monterey voters spoke in strong opposition to the historic district and its supporters: it was time to end the foolishness. Four elected representatives took heed and acted, including Councilman Don Dowdy who at first favored keeping a district, but changed his mind after hearing from constituents.

In a recent interview, Mayor Warner expressed her pride in the four Councilmen’s resolve to represent the voters’ best interests, to resist outside, special-interest pressure and to end a source of divisiveness which was sidetracking the energies of the Council from real issues of importance.

Thoughtful, unbiased residents believe Monterey and Highland County will not only survive, but will prosper to an even greater degree without a government historic district bureaucracy or, as one resident put it, the “oxymoronic designation of Certified Local Government” to sap individual initiative and community pride. The people of Monterey and Highland have built, preserved and restored hundreds of historic homes and structures during the past 200 plus years, and they will continue to do so, without historic districts and without requiring infusions of taxpayer’s dollars.

Councilman Bill Niswander struck at the heart of the matter when he stated, Monterey “doesn’t need the federal government coming in here and telling us how to do and what to do…We don’t need the feds.”

Commentary: Americans are recognizing it is not just the physical servitudes of taxation and bureaucratic control which are bringing our society to its knees, but also the demeaning servitude of mind and spirit, and the sloth of statist dependence demanded by an elitist, moneyed class—self-anointed arbiters of our culture who have no scruples about profiting at the expense of the average American as long as petty despotism and personal gain can be cloaked behind high-minded terms such as “historic preservation.”

Federal involvement in state and local preservation issues is unconstitutional and thus unlawful, and should be terminated. While there is much valuable work done by the Virginia DHR, with authority and justification for certain of its programs at the state level, most of its work could and should be carried out by private organizations and individuals without taxpayer funding or state interference.

Monterey’s decision is testimony to the independence, integrity and common sense of the people of Monterey and Highland County in the face of hostility from special interests and a press who make a mockery of the real history of American greatness. It is a significant victory for private property rights in Virginia, and sets an example for similar actions in other jurisdictions. Mayor Warner and the four Councilmen should be congratulated for their historic decision.

The Virginia Land Rights Coalition, working to inform property owners of the dangers of government run historic districts, advocates true historic preservation through voluntary initiative. We believe the most effective way to reclaim America from the clutches of socialistic big government, to restore and revitalize our communities, and instill pride in our heritage, is by informed citizen action at the local level. By the forceful assertion of the individual’s sacred rights to Life, Liberty and Property, Americans must hold all officials accountable to Constitutional principles. The concepts of Local Sovereignty and Subsidiarity must be reaffirmed in every American community, as they have been in Monterey, if we are to preserve our historic and cultural legacy, and our freedoms.