Remind Me Again, Who Paid For This House?

The Denver Post reported earlier this week that someone who bought a house – and the land it sits on – managed to retain the right to demolish it and build a new house.  Gary Yourtz bought a nice, mid-century modern house at 825 S. Adams St. for $1.1 million, planning to raze the place and build a house he wanted to live in.  Using a law designed for historic preservation, neighbors filed an application for landmark designation on his home 15 minutes before the deadline.  Now, Yourtz’s lawyers are $18,000 richer, but he has the right to do what he wants with his property.

Of the two complainants, one, Susan Livingston, lives in Belcaro, the neighborhood where the house is.  The other, Mitch Cowley, doesn’t even live in Denver County, yet asserts a property right over a house he likes to look at.  By his logic, I have at least some right to go around dynamiting the vast majority of Denver’s public “art.”  (Actually, come to think of it, some sort of citizen petition process on these eyesores wouldn’t be a bad idea.)  Denver has hundreds, perhaps thousands of these houses, and I’m sure if Mr. Cowley is driving miles and miles out of his way to see this one, there are others he can learn to love.

I say this as someone who believes in historic preservation, loves the look of mid-Century architecture, and thinks that having the designation makes sense.  But this fellow paid for his house, neither of the complainants did.  To sandbag a guy after he’s bought a house and tell him he has to live in it as is or re-sell it is absurd.  Property is more than the dollar value assigned to it.  It’s the right (externalities aside) to use it as one wishes, to not use it at all, and to prevent or permit others to use it as one wishes.  It is also – painful though this may be – the right to destroy it and replace it with something better.

There’s a principle in historical research that thing used are not preserved, while those preserved are not used.  There’s no reason to believe that what holds for households shouldn’t also hold for houses.  Eventually, these preserved buildings will appeal to a narrower and narrower slice of owner, until they turn into museums.  Again, I have no problem with preserving some of these buildings.  I’m not a big fan of HOAs, but if Belcaro homeowners want to get together and sign off on never changing their homes, they can do so.  It’s their own rights they’re signing away, and anyone buying the house can do so knowing the rules.

According to Assistant City Attorney Kerry Buckey, “Some of these structures, in a way, are owned by the whole city.”
Ah, no.  No, they’re not.

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