Saline Historic District Commission: Keepin’ It Real

 06/04/2014 - 03:13

Those who do not live in a historic district may know little of Saline’s Historic District Commission (HDC). Those who do live in these districts know them very well. The HDC has the authority to regulate any changes to historic houses that these homeowners choose to make. This is to preserve the ambiance of the neighborhoods.

Recently, most of the historic homes in the city were labeled with “Saline Historic Building” signs. These are put up for a week every May to commemorate Preservation Month as proclaimed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“Those signs are intended to be eye-catching and promote interest in historic preservation,” said Jeff Fordice, Saline Public Works Director and member of the HDC. “They are not a comprehensive marker program of all the significant buildings in Saline. We don’t have enough signs for that.”

Most older Michigan cities have HDCs. The state passed enabling legislation, Public Act 169, in 1970 that grants city-based groups the authority to demand that homeowners not modify their properties in ways that compromise their historic look. Saline’s historic district ordinance was adopted in 1998.

“If work is preformed without review and without a permit then the commission has the authority to take them (i.e., homeowners) to court and force them to correct the changes,” Fordice said.

Historic districts are established by the Saline HDC with the participation and approval of property owners from the district, Fordice said. The city has established three historic districts. The first was West Henry Street and South Lewis Street District in 2002. The city established historic districts on North Ann Arbor Street in 2004 and South Ann Arbor Street in 2007. There may be others in the future.

Sometimes the requirement to maintain an historic appearance can conflict with other regulations. For example, the safety rules for railings on porches are inconsistent with historic construction methods. Fordice says such conflicts have not happened very often in Saline and that they are resolved on a case-by case basis.

The HDC meets once a month at 7 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of the month. Lori Swick called the May 27 meeting to order. This was Swick’s first meeting as chair after she was elected to the position last month. Her election occurred after the passing of the previous chair, Cynthia Christensen.

As is often done, the first business was to hear a report from the Saline Area Historical Society. This is a different organization that shares the goal of promoting and preserving local history.

Doug Elfring, current president of the historical society, reported that Ted Micka, “the Barn Doctor,” had repaired and repainted the livery barn at the Depot Museum. Also, he said that a chimney route that had permitted squirrels to enter the caboose and do mischief has now been blocked. Elfring reported the completion of a 200-foot walking trail and signage at the new Salt Springs Park. He also spoke about the Renschler Farm Museum playing host to 350 school kids along with their teachers and chaperones this spring.

The walking trail was completed by a boy scout working on his Eagle rank. Another Eagle proposal was discussed and endorsed. This project, proposed by Max Kelley, entails the construction of a shed to hold the Depot Museum’s velocipede, a hand-powered cart that rides the rails.

But the primary business of the HDC is to hear requests from owners of historic properties to upgrade their homes. There were four of these last Tuesday.

For example, Chris Malloy spoke about the need to redo the porch on the house he owns at 600 W. Michigan Ave. This building was once a schoolhouse on Macon Road and was moved to the current location by Henry Ford in 1043.

The commission discussed materials, construction methods and contractors. The current state of the porch was considered a safety hazard and the project was tentatively approved, provided that the original appearance be matched as much as possible.

Two properties in the South Ann Arbor Street district were also discussed. One owner wanted to replace five windows while another wanted to excavate around the foundation to waterproof the basement. Both were approved.

The waterproofing project included a request to put in a basement escapement window. These are required by safety code if the basement is ever to be used as a living area, but they are a relatively modern feature. Commissioners requested that the owner use appropriate landscaping to hide the modification from street view.

Homeowner David Luttenbacher asked permission to replace two steel windows on his house in the North Ann Arbor District with vinyl windows. Though the replacements would not be very historical, other windows in the house had been similarly replaced several years ago. They had been approved because of an oversight. “You got lucky,” commissioner Michael Brown said.

Balancing historicity with practicality and competing regulations is a big part of the job of the HDC. Combined with their work to establish historic districts and promote historical preservation, they have a daunting task.

Bob Conradi's picture
Bob Conradi Is a retired pharmaceutical scientist who has redefined himself as a photographer and journalist. He has lived in Michigan for 36 years and in the Saline area for 10. He enjoys researching and learning about new ideas. Reach him at Follow him on Twitter at @RobertConradi.