Penalties as Teeth

New Orleans, for all its attributes and faults as an ancient city, is notable for having the second oldest historic district in America. Only Charleston, South Carolina’s “Old and Historic District” (established in 1931) pre-dates the Vieux Carre Commission. Not surprisingly, New Orleans is home to the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans, a model among preservation groups. PRCNO, in partnership with the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation, publishes Preservation in Print, a glossy monthly magazine with in depth coverage of the New Orleans preservation scene. (It’s as lively as one might expect.)

Preservation in Print has been known to cause swooning and breathlessness due to its beautiful photographs and interesting tidbits on New Orleans’s historic landscape. But I was damn near floored by the March 2022 issue which featured a summary of Nathan Lott’s white paper, Just fine? Rethinking Penalties for Illegal Demolition in Local Historic Districts. After all, it’s not often that I find topics so relevant to the Law of Place. (Occasional flabbergastedness is a risk assumed by uber-niche bloggers.) Of course, the mere summary would not be enough.

In his full length white paper, Lott, PRCNO’s Policy Research Director & Advocacy Coordinator, explains how, although historic preservation permitting is rather uniformly regulated by local governments throughout the country, enforcement of the rules and penalties for violations thereof are detrimentally divergent among localities. For instance, Lott cites Florida, Texas, and Wisconsin as examples of places whose laws impose not only fines for unauthorized demolition of historic buildings but also greater penalties, such as criminal sanctions in the form of misdemeanor citations and the prohibition of future development.

In contrast, Louisiana Revised Statute 25:740 imposes a fine of only $1,000 to $10,000 for unauthorized demolition of a building within a historic district. Period. When the law was enacted in 1979, the fine was equivalent to $37,760 – a meaningful amount then, compared to the laughable amount devious developers face today. Thus, Lott argues, Louisiana lacks the teeth with which other states enforce violations of historic preservation laws.

In support of his argument, Lott cites New Orleans case studies illustrating how even the maximum fine of $10,000 could be considered only as a cost of doing business – something not worth the effort to prevent. The effect is deleterious for historic districts, which are irrevocably robbed of important assets. To solve the problem, Lott suggests that La. R.S. 25:740 be revised to increase the penalty to $40,000, or 20% of the property’s pre-demolition assessed value.

I suspect this is only the beginning of a worthwhile effort. Indeed, in response to my laudatory email, Lott advised that Representative Aimee Freeman has sponsored HB193 to provide more sizable penalties in Orleans Parish for unauthorized demolitions. Of course, this means more food for the Law-of-Place hungry. Good thing Lott’s proposal comes with teeth. (Get it?!)

Hallie ♥ historic houses and all things old. Earth + Ether Press is a passion project merging her love for old places and the books (and laws!) that will save them. She believes all problems can be solved with a long run and a cold beer (not necessarily in that order).