Monday, May 7, 2012

Higher Taxes do not guarantee a better government or better services

According to Clarkston News archives the village became a city on July 1, 1992. A letter sent out to village residents stated "The Village Council can unequivocally state that city hood will provide more revenue than it will cost." (Clarkston News August 25, 2010)

Somewhere around 2000, only 8 years after becoming a city, residents were being charged the maximum tax rate allowed by the still relatively new City Charter.  At around the same time, a ballot proposal was approved to put in city water and redo the city roads that would need to be torn up to install the water.  This was approved by the voters and raised taxes by about another 5 mills and adding a special assessment to all properties.

The summary meeting minutes for the June 10, 2003 City Council meeting has the entry, "Budget Hearing was held where City residents expressed concerns over the City Millage rates. Budget was discussed and Council agreed to continue to monitor finances" as contained in the Pubic Notices section of the Clarkston News. According to Oakland County tax records, city taxes were 18.4041 mills in 2003 and the highest they could legally be, as they have been ever since.  In 2003 the Independence Township millage rate was 7.222 mills.  Some will argue that this is an unfair comparison due to the added tax for roads and water but these are the rates one will pay depending on whether they live in the city or township.  It also seems to contradict the statements made only 11 years earlier that "The Village Council can unequivocally state that city hood will provide more revenue than it will cost."

In 2007 during my first year on the City Council, I told the council and public that the city was going broke because city revenues were declining faster than expenses (Clarkston News June 20, 2007).  If you keep this up you will eventually run out of money and it seems we now have.

On August 3, 2010 there was a vote on a 5 mill tax increase to the Village of Clarkston city charter that would have raised it to the maximum tax rate allowed by Michigan law.  This was presented by the city as something to save the local police department but the actual ballot language said nothing about police and the City Council would have been under no obligation, other than perhaps public outcry, to use it for police.  The proposal was narrowly defeated by only 8 votes.  Again it seems that city hood does not automatically provide more revenue than the city is capable of spending.

In a September 4, 2010 Oakland Press article, written when the city eliminated their police department, City Manager Dennis Ritter is reported to have said that with the change in police services, the city’s finances are now on stable ground for at least three years.  That was about 1 1/2 years ago.

On January 31, 2012, city council and finance committee member Richard Bisio placed a memo on Facebook and addressed to the City Finance committee, explaining in some detail that there would be an operating deficit of approximately $50,000 due to the city’s declining property values.  The city council took no action to resolve this problem and has gone on to approve over $32,000 in new unbudgeted and unplanned expenses from not only the current budget year but also from future budgets. 

Former Mayor Steve Arkwright was quoted in the March 8, 2012 Oakland Press as saying, The city, during this downturn in the economy, not only has managed its finances very efficiently, they are in better position today financially than they were a couple years ago.”

City council member Bisio released another memo on April 13, 2012 again defining in detail the pending operating deficit where revenues will not cover expenses in the next budget year and perhaps for many years thereafter.  He now estimates a $64,000 shortfall and gave some recommendations of cutting pay to elected officials and removing all funding for the Planning and Historic District Commission. His other suggestions included using the current .691 mills paid for Township library services for other operating expenses if the proposed District Library millage passes, effectively raising the city tax rate above the charter maximum.  My personal favorite is to charge a fee to pay your property tax bill.  Higher property taxes than our neighbors and we may have to pay a fee to pay taxes?  But according to Mr. Bisio, all of this would still not cover the estimated expenses and another $20,000 will be needed from the city reserves.

This apparently prompted the Mayor to make his first known statement about the city’s budget problem as reported in the April 25, 2012 Clarkston News where he says agrees with some of Mr. Bisio’s suggestion and states, “The finance committee continues to grapple with what appears to be a very significant deficit for next year.”  He was quoted again in the May 1, 2012 Oakland Press  and was even on the evening television news.  Even with all of this, the Mayor said if you added up the possible pay and other proposed budget cuts, it was only around $10,000 even though a budget deficit in excess of $60,000  has been estimated. To date, there are no known plans to deal with this.

The Mayor and other city council members should also know that this budget problem will likely last for many years if the city continues on the way it has.  Property tax revenues cannot by law rise fast enough to solve the deficit in the city’s budget and the finance committee, working in total secrecy, has yet to suggest any long or short term solution.  There is also no plan of any kind to increase or even address the drastically reduced city property values that are estimated to fall another 13.2% from 2011 to 2012.  Falling property values have been discussed regionally and nationally in much detail for the last several years, but not by the government of the City of the Village of Clarkston who have made almost no attempts to address city economic, development or value issues.

According to the newly amended budget that was approved by the City Council on April 23, 2012, the budget surplus for this year has declined from the original amount of $17,359 to only $1,737 and there are still more than two months left in the budget year. At that same meeting, the City Council approved that architectural plans be finalized for a new Department of Public Works building that is estimated to cost 80% more than originally planned, has no funding in place to build, and that there is no official record that the money has been allocated to pay the architect.  They also agreed to spend city funds to "digitize" city records and make them more easily accessible.  Up to now those records have been almost inaccessible even with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.  This may be a good thing but it still has to be paid for by a city that has no money.

Meanwhile, the surrounding township is considering a vote to raise the tax millage for fire service.  The city does not vote on this and is contractually obligated to pay whatever the township voters approve.  This could be an additional annual expense of from $18.000 to $22,000 which the city will have no control of and does not currently have the money to pay.  

But what about former mayor Arkwright’s statement only six weeks earlier that we, “...are in better position today financially than they were a couple years ago”?  Were we really in worse shape than this a couple of years ago?  What about the letter from the Positively Clarkston group whose 5 members include the present City Manager and Mayor as well as the two former mayors?  That letter says nothing about any financial problems even though it does say we pay greater taxes than the surrounding township and that if we were not a city, the reduction in taxes would be “significant” at almost 15%.  We would also not be facing a deficit budget for many years into the future.

Is there a possibility that we could actually pay less in taxes and avoid a future deficit?  It seems too good to be true, but it is possible if we were not a city paying for a city government that seems incapable of doing much of anything.

So what is the truth?  Are we a wonderful historic village with “many fantastic well cared for historical homes” and a “vibrant business district” as stated by Positively Clarkston, or are we paying significantly higher taxes for services we have no control of and a business district that is barely surviving, as some retailers have claimed?  Given that the city has lost most zoning battles and fails to enforce much of anything, is local control and the related cost really that important if nothing is done?  Do any of the wonderful things claimed by Positively Clarkston have anything to do with being a city?  We were part of the surrounding township for more than 150 years and that’s what established the historic homes and character we currently have, not our 20 years of being a city.  

Will any of this matter if the city goes bankrupt or taxes the residents out of existence to pay the ever increasing expenses that appear to provide little benefit to those that live here and yet must pay the taxes?

Were we told the truth 20 years ago that city hood will provide more revenue than it will cost?  Were we told the truth two years ago when the Mayor and City Manager said we were good for another three years? It doesn’t look like it.  

Do any of those that want cityhood at any cost have any plan for making it financially viable for any more than a few more months, perhaps a few years, at which time there will be nothing left to spend?  If they do, they aren't telling those that will have to pay the bill. 

If you are concerned about your taxes, how you are being represented, and if you are being kept informed about your government’s financial status, and yes the future of the Village of Clarkston, I recommend you contact your city representative and ask them why the story keeps changing.  Why is everything "positive" even as services decline and more and more control is lost every day? Is everything wonderful or are we quickly running out of money? Will they keep approving undocumented expenses and ignoring the pending deficit that they should have dealt with long ago?

If you think an average of about $500 per year in additional taxes is OK, even as the city goes broke, ask yourself if you would give someone $500 every year for no reason.  The total additional tax burden to the city residents is currently about $200,000 each year and that is at our significantly reduced property values which continue to decline.  In 20 years the potential savings in taxes could be more than 4 million dollars.  It has been 20 years since we became a city. Ask yourself if our city of only 880 people really wants to spend 4 million dollars over the next 20 years so that “city” can be in front of "village" in front of "clarkston".  It seems that may be all we get.  

There is a better way, it can cost less, there can be just as much control although it may be by a majority instead of a very small minority, and Clarkston can again be a better place to live.  Consider ending the 20 year experiment with city hood.  It has failed and not one person has brought forth even a suggestion of how being a city can work financially or for the good of all who are involved.   

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Duplicate and Redundant Government

Now I've done it.  My wild and crazy ideas made it to the front page of the Oakland Press Resident aims to dissolve Clarkston into Independence Township  The subtitle is "Proposal would urge city to become part of the Independence for lower property taxes.  True enough but there may be a need for a little more explanation and quite a few more reasons why a "city" could be better off not being a city.

My proposal is to eliminate the municipal entity known as the City of the Village of Clarkston because it serves no real purpose other than costing the taxpayers more money.  If approved by the voters, it would not be to "urge" but to make it mandatory.  I've tried urging and it didn't work.

But it really is not about the taxes although that is important in these economic times.  It is really about the quality of government and what it costs to have that.  They City of the Village of Clarkston has neither the funds or expertise to do a budget analysis as well as the surrounding Township does.  They have little money for legal work as they already spent the entire year's legal budget in the first 6 months of the year.  Other than the part time government, the only service provided by the city is the Department of Public Works (DPW) that mows the lawn in the summer, plows the secondary streets in the winter and does whatever they do between those activities.  The DPW does not have time to weed, or maintain trees so the public gardens and street trees are generally in pretty bad conditions until someone volunteers to help out.  Meanwhile, all the other services required by a city are provided by the surrounding township and the County.  Even things like the Senior Center and Parks and Recreation are provided by the generosity of Independence Township as the City provides no social services or much of anything else.  But for some unexplained reason, we do pay higher taxes for this lack of service.

A few of the elected officials have implied that zoning and protection of the Village's historic assets are really the only reasons Clarkston became a city and that is still the important issue today.  Good reasons but pretty minimal if one considers all the things a city can do, or even what they legally have to do.  I'll leave the historic issues for another time and I've already written about them before, so let's talk about zoning.  The City Council has made the City Planning Commission inconsequential by ignoring any recommendation the Planning Commission makes and bypassing them completely whenever possible.  Planning Commission meetings are generally unannounced and held random days that few know anything about. The City Zoning Ordinance, which is what the Planning Commission operates by, is regularly ignored by just about everyone inside and outside of the city government.  It is not enforced at all and the Council is still questioning who is supposed to enforce it.  The City Charter says it is the City Manager but the charter is also ignored whenever it is convenient.  So how can zoning be important to anyone when the ordinance that controls it is ignored, the Commission that controls it is ignored, and it is seldom enforced?  Seems to me that zoning is one of the lowest priorities, not the highest.  Why are we paying higher taxes for this?

So the question comes back to why pay higher taxes for less service, few standards, and a government with less expertise?  As I noted above, the only answer given so far is to protect our zoning and historic character.  Reasonably good goals if they were being acted on but what are we protecting them from?  Township residents enjoy our zoning and history as much as city residents.  They sponsor and organize parades and events on Main Street every year and provide summer concerts in the park.  The city has no real involvement with these other than allowing them to happen.  One of my favorite summer events is the Saturday morning Clarkston Farmers' Market which has been in downtown Clarkston since they first began. Almost every Saturday as there is one when the city won't let them because another non-profit organization gets priority over all others.  This will change starting this summer as the Clarkston Farmers' Market for the first time will be in Independence Township, not in the City of the Village of Clarkston.

Like any other service or product, if you can get a better one for less money, most people will take the offer.  There are some that say it doesn't cost that much more.  I guess those people are willing to accept less and pay more more for it, or perhaps they have so much money that it doesn't matter.  Good for them.

The township and the people that live there are not our enemy.  They are our friends and neighbors,  Why not work together, pay equally and do good things with the money that is now wasted on being a city?  If there is someone out there who is going to destroy Main Street, please have them call me.  After 32 years in Clarkston, I have yet to meet them other than perhaps those attempting to govern the City of the Village of. We can do far better and we can do it for less cost.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

It is time for a better idea

My city is suffering through the economy like many others.  Property values are expected to decline 13.2% next year with a corresponding reduction in revenue since property taxes are the major source of municipal funding.  It is estimated that my city will run a deficit budget, that is revenues will be less than expenses, for another 3 to 5 years or longer and in that same time the city reserve funds will be used up to pay for the losses.

One suggested remedy is to raise taxes which seems like a bad idea when people have less money and their property, which is generally their biggest investment, is declining in value.  Other suggestions have been to add or increase fees, reduce services, reduce expenses by cutting costs, sell assets, and so on.

While these are the normal suggestions, they hardly seem like good ones as not one of them will improve my city or make it a better place to live.  Higher taxes, higher fees, less service and even less local control hardly seem like things that will encourage people to stay or new people and businesses to come.

My suggestion is a radical one but as it says at the top of the page, Big Ideas for Small Towns and my town is small, 1/2 square mile with a population of 882.  We are a city surrounded by a larger township that provides most of our government services including water, police, fire protection, and library.  We cannot vote in the township, do not vote on our taxes unless somebody wants to increase them, and other than a part time government we are provided little other services.  My local government often has great difficulty meeting the minimum requirements of state law and often ignores the City Charter, local ordinances and City Council resolutions.  The supporters of this say we must maintain local control.  I respond that we control very little and do a poor job at it.

So I say get rid of the redundant local government that only duplicates the government we use for our essential services.  Let us vote for our services and taxes, like they do in the surrounding township.  Negotiate, legislate, dictate, or otherwise create protection for the assets we have, and make positive moves to make this a better place to live.

I have suggested making it friendlier for bikers, walkers and the elderly.  The city has not  acted on this and will not talk about it.  I am working with others to create a venue for theater, artists and musicians in the historic downtown area.  It is not funded or sponsored by the government so it really doesn't matter who is in charge.  It would add vitality, interest, art and culture which will attract people to the area, help local businesses, and provide a reason for others to stay.  I am encouraging better regional planning and sharing so that it is done collaboratively instead of each municipality repeating what the other one is doing, or not doing anything at all.  So far my city has done little with this idea but continues to pay for services by others and is not a voice in the decision making process.  Hardly what I would call maintaining local control.

The laws governing cities, villages and township in Michigan are over 100 years old.  Much of the economic policies are probably as old and many laws and regulations have changed in that 100 years.  The law for being a city or not being one has unfortunately not changed.  It is time to face the fact that today's economy is the one we will have to live with for many more years, that the old economy is not coming back and the old rules for economic recovery will probably not work.  Others more knowledgeable than I have already said this.  It appears my elected officials do not believe it.  I think my solutions have a far better chance at success, they would make my community a better place to be and they would not tax us out of existence.  

Monday, January 23, 2012

Planning for Something Better

There is so much information out there that is often difficult to keep track of it and assemble it into something meaningful.  Today was not like that as it all came in at the same time.

A post on titled Sick of the suburbs: How badly designed communities trash our health is about exactly what you think it would be about. The trouble is that most suburbs, and cities, are badly designed if health is a guiding principle.  You might get a park, certainly a sidewalk or two, but in most cases it is for cars, trucks,  business and industry.  Food and water are things that come from somewhere else and are trucked and piped.  So more business, industry and vehicles are needed to make anywhere livable once everything that was there is paved over.

Then there was the release of the Alliance for Biking & Walking 2012 Benchmarking Report on of all things, biking and walking.  It does not tell us how to go forward as much as telling  us where we are.  We do need to define the problem and know where we are so that we can plan for something better.

Finally there was the article at titled Utah Envisions a Sustainable Future about the public-private partnership called Envision Utah.  They started planning 15 years ago when they realized that growth was going to happen and that growth in the normal manner has not healthy.  To quote the article, "Today, Envision Utah is a national model for cities grappling with how to ease congestion, stop sprawl and clean the air..."  

We may not be able to get the last 15 years back but there is certainly a lot of good information to build on and to begin planning for something better in the next 15 years. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

City, Village, Township

This was intended to be a short post but for reasons I do not fully understand, everything gets longer every time I try to edit.

The discussion has started again on why the Village of Clarkston should be a City.  There have been some very interesting comments.  Perhaps this is a good time to define what a City, Village, and Township are in Michigan. 
Main Street - City of the Village of Clarkston, Michigan
There are several good references for this and the language is similar in all of them.  The Citizens Research Council(CRC) of Michigan had a special report in July of 2010 discussing this in regards to the upcoming vote on constitutional convention and the issues of local government that might be addressed if such an event took place.  It didn't but the special report is informative and interesting reading. 

Wikipedia has a relatively short definition at:

The Michigan Municipal league has several publications on Villages and Cities.  One from May of 2005 gives brief description of a city as follows:
A city, being withdrawn from the township, must provide the basic, state-required duties as well as its own services.  In addition to being responsible for assessing property and collecting taxes for county and school purposes, the city is also solely responsible for registration of voters and conduct of all elections within its boundaries.
The greater independence of the city, in maintaining local regulations and functions and state imposed duties in one integrated unit, accounts for the creation of many small cities in Michigan during recent decades. The trend has also developed in villages to seek incorporation as cities whereby they achieve a separation of jurisdiction from the township.

In addition to detailed information on the history and structure of Cities, Villages and Townships in Michigan there is an interesting description of Michigan cities in a paper titled, Michigan Local Government Structures,Services and Practices.  Prepared in 2002 for the Michigan Civics Institute Local Government Curriculum, it states the following;
Cities were formed predominantly when the residents of a densely developed area of a township desired municipal services (water, sewer, police, fire, etc.). Prior to the Constitution of 1909 and the ensuing adoption of the Home Rule Cities Act, petitioners would submit a geographic district to the State and seek approval to become a city. Per the provisions of the Home Rule Cities Act, a geographic district is submitted to eligible voters within that district, and if a majority approves, the new city comes into being after official certification of the State Boundary Commission.

A similar description of the services provided by local government is in the CRC report cited earlier and is as follows:
Commonly provided local government services include police and fire protection, water and sewerage, parks and recreation, refuse collection, roads and sidewalks, libraries, streetscapes, and economic development.

The Village of Clarkston became a city 20 years ago in 1992 and currently does not provide its own police, fire protection, water, sewerage, parks and recreation, and libraries.  They are all contracted from, supplied, maintained and controlled by the voters and elected officials of the surrounding Township of Independence.  Refuse collection is contracted privately by each property owner and the city has no involvement.

Roads, sidewalks and streetscapes are maintained by the city but the success and adequacy of the work is questionable especially when one considers that there is not one intersection and crosswalk in the city that meets the current Americans with Disability Act standards and people have complained publicly to the City Council that is is unsafe to walk here.

There is no plan, committee or even a single designated person for economic development.

Assessing, which is something both cities and townships must do, is not done by the City of the Village of  Clarkston but by contract with the County.  Independence Township does assessing within their township and in my opinion provides better information at no additional cost.

There are no public schools located within the city boundaries.  They are all in the adjacent townships.

Twenty years ago, before the City of the Village of Clarkston became a city and was a Village in the Township of Independence, the police, fire, library and Township Hall were all in the Village.  All of these are now located outside of the City. The buildings in the city that once housed the police, library and Township government are empty.

Getting back to the Michigan Municipal League descriptions:
The basic difference between a city and a village is that whenever and wherever an area is incorporated as a village, it stays within the township. The villagers participate in township affairs and pay township taxes in addition to having their own village government. Incorporation as a city, however, removes an area from township government. City dwellers participate in county elections and pay county taxes, as do villagers, but are removed from township units.
Villages in Michigan are organized primarily to establish local regulatory ordinances and to provide local services such as fire and police protection, public works and utilities. Certain of the local duties required by the state are not demanded of the village but are performed by the embracing township including assessing property; collecting taxes for counties and school districts; and administering county, state and national elections.

I could not find a good concise description of a Township, although I am sure one exists.  I did find an interesting one from the January/February 2006 Michigan Township News.  Perhaps it is overly biased to townships but this is what the article states; 
All townships, regardless of how many people they serve or the amount of money in their budgets, share certain characteristics.  This is because townships, like counties, are statutory governmental entities.  Townships have only those powers expressly provided or fairly implied by state law.  Townships may act only when a state law authorizes them to act. However, township government powers have grown over the years so that it is now difficult to discern the differences between townships, cities and villages.

I would hold that townships like Independence, Waterford and no doubt many others, provide almost the exact same services and benefits as a city and that they offer far more services and expertise than a city like the Village of Clarkston is capable of.  A township provides all of this at a lower tax rate along with zoning regulations.  Townships can have a Historic District and Commission, just like a city.

The City of the Village of Clarkston is no longer the service and amenity leader or provider.  To put it another way, Independence Township would function and survive if the City of the Village of Clarkston ceased to exist.  The City on the other hand could not function or meet their legal requirements without the services provided, controlled and located in the surrounding Township.

At one time, Cities annexed township land when it became valuable thus depriving townships of potential revenue.  Laws were created for Charter Townships that made this more difficult.  Newspaper articles from when the Village of Clarkston became a city report that some of the justification was a fear of increased taxes and losing the "village" atmosphere.  Cityhood was proposed as protection against the township.

The traditional and historical character and responsibilities of City and Township has now been turned upside down and the City of the Village of Clarkston pays higher taxes for a less capable government providing fewer services all because of fear and a perceived need for protection from our friends and neighbors.  An example is South Main Street.  The east side is in the Township, the west side is in the City.  The services provided to both are exactly the same other than where people vote.  The city side pays higher taxes which they cannot vote on.  I defy anyone to show me what the city residents get for their extra tax money versus their friends and neighbors across the street. What protection are they receiving?  It doesn't make any sense.

Is it worth it for City residents to pay in excess of $200,000 more in taxes than the same property in the Township just to be a city?  How is all that tax money benefiting them?  Do a majority of the current 882 residents of the City want this?  Only 228 people voted for becoming a city 22 years ago.  Is that vote still valid when we receive all of our services from the Township that less than ¼ of the former 1100 city population voted to be separated from?  Why does the population of the city continue to decline while it increases in the township?

Streets are cleared of snow in the winter in both the city and township although it is possible that the City is done quicker.  However, you cannot get into or out of the City without driving through the Township so does it really matter?  Just like in the city, the grass is mowed in the township, sidewalks are maintained and we all shop, drive, walk, bicycle and have friends in each other’s municipality.

The residents of Independence Township pay a lower tax rate for the exact same services, have all the benefits attributed to the Village of Clarkston and they can vote on the cost of their services.  The City residents can't.

If the Village of Clarkston zoning and historical district are so valuable that they must be protected, why wouldn't they be just as valuable to a majority of the people in the Township who benefit from them just like we do?

There is obviously a problem in how cities, villages and townships are financially structured.  Perhaps this is because they are based on laws written over 100 years ago and complicated by all the laws that have been written since, most notably the Headlee amendment in 1978, before the Village of Clarkston became a city, and Proposal A which came afterwards in 1994.  A summary of the effects caused by these two actions was done by Plante Moran in 2004, sponsored by the Michigan Municipal League, and is titled System Failure: Michigan's Broken Municipal Finance Model and this was before our most recent economic meltdown.

Fear is not a good reason for what we now have.  Financial fairness and a democratic right to vote should prevail.  Let’s continue the discussion, find a better way, and hopefully put the question up for a vote by a better educated public.  You can learn a lot in 20 years.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Independence Township

My neighbor Neil Wallace has a blog at that covers matters in Independence Township.  He recently wrote about The City of the Village  no doubt in response the story in the Clarkston News titled New year, new effort to dissolve Clarkston.  Not the best or most correct title but I have no control over reporters or editors.  

Independence Township, where Mr. Wallace lives, surrounds the 1/2 square mile City of the Village of Clarkston.  The entire area is Clarkston mailing and everyone says they live in Clarkston.  Mr Wallace is also a Trustee on the Township Board.  His home in Independence Township is just a few doors outside of the City of the Village of Clarkston.   He does own a downtown Main Street building in the City where his law office is located and can easily walk from one to the other, which he does.

Neil raises some good points to consider and I appreciate that he thinks the Village of Clarkston should be managed by those that live there, not by the Township.  I assume he is not commenting on the Township's ability to manage just who he feels could do it better.  He also points out the many community events occur in the City and that everyone benefits from those activities.  I agree.  

What he does not explain is how the 882+ residents of the City can afford the cost burden of additional government that provides little more than zoning, and even that is not done well.  He does not explain how they can continue to do that for the benefit of more than 35,000 people who don't live in the City and pay lower taxes simply because they don't.  He does not explain the declining property values in the City, and related declining tax revenues, where the average value is now less than the average property value in his Township.  And did I mention they also pay less in taxes for their more expensive property?  He does not explain how the people and government of the City of the Village of Clarkston will be able to manage these assets when the government of the City can barely meet the minimum standards of a functional government and often fails.  Perhaps that will be coming in the future.

Neil Wallace does suggest that perhaps returning to only a Village, versus a City of the Village, may be a way to preserve the characteristics many cherish.  That is certainly a possibility but my reading of the law says that we must first get rid of the cost and redundant government associated with cityhood.  Or perhaps we can skip that step and become the Village of the City of the Village of.  I don't think so.  While we work on that, we should certainly be considering what will happen next.  I am not sure that happened 20 years ago when only 228 votes determined that we would be better off as a city to protect ourselves from the surrounding Township. 

Neil closes with the statement, "As a resident of the “Clarkston community” I hope the City leaders find a way to solve their dilemma without putting at risk the very special character of Clarkston."  He has a lot more confidence in our leaders than I do.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Historical Village of Clarkston

The Village of Clarkston is where I have lived for over 30 years.  It is probably known best for its historic buildings, and most recently for two very popular restaurants in the Main Street business area.  The historic buildings are all in one area giving the village atmosphere we enjoy and many wish to protect.  I think they are best enjoyed by walking so that you can stop and see the detail up close.  It is difficult, and dangerous, to stop and observe while driving a car, so I recommend you walk in any town with interesting architecture.
Main Street - Village of Clarkston, Michigan
Clarkston has an active Historical Society, the Village of Clarkston has National Historic Designation, an Ordinance for the designated historic district and a Historic District Commission.  There are many similar historic areas in Michigan and elsewhere, some with recognized historical designation, and some with just nice old buildings and other interesting architecture.  All should be considered assets to the community they are in. 

Decisions on the work that can be done on historic properties can be difficult as there is a balance between what a property owner should be able to do and what is in keeping with the historic character and requirements, or the “greater good”.  The National Park Service provides guidance on many of these issues and has a set of general Standards as well as Preservation Briefs addressing specific concerns.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation also provides assistance as does the Michigan Historic Preservation Network and the State Historic Preservation Office.  In the end the argument often comes down to preservation versus appearance and cost.  Is it truly historic or does is just need to look that way?  Which should it be?
Main Street Commercial Building before remodeling
Main Street Building during construction
Two properties in the Village of Clarkston exemplify this issue.  One is a commercial property on Main Street in the downtown area.  It recently had a change of use from a real estate office to a physical therapy provider.  It has been other uses in the past and is believed to have possibly started as a car repair shop or car dealership.  It is considered a “non-contributing” historic building in that it has no great architecture or history that makes it significant but is part of the fabric that contributes to the overall historic district.  In the recent remodeling, the new owners significantly changed the exterior appearance and replaced the wood horizontal siding with fiber cement board that mimics the look of wood horizontal siding.  The existing wood siding did not appear to be in bad condition and probably had been added over the original block wall at some time in the past.  The Historic District Commission recommended, and the owner agreed, to use a smaller lap, or exposure, on the siding which more closely resembles what may have been done in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, and that was similar to the wood siding that was being replaced.  The problem is that the building is not from that period, the overall look of the building has been significantly changed over the years and none of what was done is truly historic.  It is merely an attempt to look like something it never was because that “look” is considered historic.  
Main Street commercial building renovation nearing completion

More troubling to me was the allowed use of the standard cement board siding that is made to look like wood in extremely poor condition.  This is something no self respecting building owner would have asked for originally and it is not in any way representative of good historic preservation, or good wood siding.  Standard 6 of the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation states that, Deteriorated historic features shall be repaired rather than replaced. Where the severity of deterioration requires replacement of a distinctive feature, the new feature shall match the old in design, color, texture, and other visual qualities and, where possible, materials. Replacement of missing features shall be substantiated by documentary, physical, or pictorial evidence.”  The Historic Guidelines further caution against "removing or radically changing wood features which are important in defining the overall historic character of the building so that, as a result, the character is diminished."
 Textured fiber cement siding

One wonders why people are now paying extra for something that mimics a new coat of paint on top of very badly maintained wood.  It is arguably not in keeping with governing standards and something no one would have historically wanted.  There are also issues with this particular building in that it did not meet several zoning requirements including screening of roof mounted mechanical equipment or landscaping of the site.  These are probably not historical issues and are best left for another discussion.  Such is the dilemma of walking as you can stop and spend time studying such issues.

In researching the use of similar fiber cement siding in historical areas, there is no consistent opinion overall on whether this product is acceptable.   In a study of 105 Historical Review Boards done by the Maryland Historical Trust, 30 approved the use of this product unconditionally, 15 approved its use with reservations and did not encourage or recommend it, 53 said it could be used only on new construction within a historic district, and seven rejected it altogether. Of the 53 respondents permitting its use on new construction, 29 said they would allow the product only on new freestanding buildings and 24 said they would allow it on additions but not the original historic building itself.  Few of those surveyed specified the material to be used for trim and detailing. Of those who did respond to the question, 21 insisted on wood and 5 allowed fiber cement type products.

In the case of the Village of Clarkston building on Main Street, it could be argued that most of those questioned in this survey would have allowed this product for this application even if with some restrictions.  The survey did not address the fake worn wood grain texturing versus the available smooth surface although other references do unequivocally reject the fake grain look.  This seems to be in keeping with the applicable governing standards, guidelines, and what it historically would have looked like as it would have been smooth unless it was in very bad condition and in need of maintenance or replacement.

Siding before current work was done
Then we have a house at 15 East Church Street.  A truly historic structure from around 1840 and built on the property of original Clarkston settler Butler Holcomb. It needed maintenance and the owner was going to remove the added shingle siding,  and just like the commercial building, put on fiber cement board horizontal siding to mimic what they thought originally existed.  This was approved by the Historic Commission and a 4 inch exposure with smooth siding is mentioned in the Historic District minutes as well as the official approval.  At the time of granting approval, the Commission had no idea what the existing lap and exposure was so here again we have a ruling that appears to be based more on achieving a certain pre-determined appearance versus historical accuracy and preservation of the original historic character.

Textured fiber cement siding and vinyl window
Once the added shingle siding was removed, wood horizontal siding was exposed that, at least in my opinion, looked to be in good condition.  It was now easy to see what the original window trim and detailing looked like.  That trim had probably been removed in the past when the original windows were replaced with new vinyl non-historic ones, or when the house was re-sided the first time.  New cement siding, not smooth but with the fake weathered texture, has now been installed exactly the same as the commercial building on Main Street and just as contrary to any historical correctness.  The remnants of what were the historic trim and detailing at the windows has again been covered over and will probably be forever lost.  The siding will for many years look like a fresh coat of paint was put over artificially bad wood.

There are many lengthy dissertations on how historic renovation, preservation, and restoration should be done while still respecting the rights and wishes of the property owner.  Many of these are well detailed in the official and legally binding decisions of Historic District Commissions.  Unfortunately for historic preservation in the Village of Clarkston, the precedent being set seems to be the creation of a new artificial historic look that only mimics what some feel it could have looked like, not what it ever was.  It is becoming a movie set that will no doubt last longer and with less maintenance than what was once here, but have little significance to the history of Clarkston.  It is no longer an original work of art and history carefully maintained, but instead something that looks somewhat similar done with different materials and ignoring most of what makes historic preservation valuable and a cultural heritage. 

I am not sure why manufacturers are creating products that mimic the original product in bad condition but it is quite common.  I have even less understanding of why people want this and are allowed to do so by those entrusted to preserve historic character and appearance.  How is our history being preserved?  Are we simply creating a new look based on someone’s creative and faulty interpretation of what old should look like versus actually being historic?  I have read arguments that you cannot tell the difference between new fake wood siding and original, or between original and replacement windows, unless you look closely.  So will a rule be developed that it is OK to fake history as long as you cannot tell from more than 5 feet, 10 feet, or perhaps more?  I like to walk, or bike, and stop often to look at buildings and details.  I like to get within a few inches so my opinions may not agree with many, but I know when I see something that is not historic. 

In my profession, I work with new materials all the time.  I am often asked to assess how a material will perform, how long it will last, and what are the cost implications.  These can be very difficult questions to answer as in many cases no one knows.  There has been no test of time.  When they were building what are now historic buildings, did anyone think that cutting down all the old growth forests to make windows, siding and trim would mean there would be no similar wood left to repair them?  Probably not and it will now take a lot of time to replace a100+ year old tree, if it can even be done.  What we now must consider is how our actions will affect our society for the next 100 years.  If we replace what is now historical with something that isn’t, what will the next generation have for a history?

Small towns are in many cases historical in some way, some more than others.  Those that are not may be in the future.  They are part of the culture of America as well as our European and other non-american heritages.  I don’t believe they should be fake.  The real history and culture is much more valuable than a lookalike reproduction, the success of Disneyland not withstanding.  If small towns want to keep what sets them apart, they should not try to mimic something else but instead be true to what established them in the beginning and what continues to attract visitors and residents.  Otherwise there will be no history.
Walk around your neighborhood, or mine, and take a close look at all there is to see.