April 2021 comments to the planning commission

Here’s the text of the LVHS board’s comments at the planning commission’s public hearing regarding proposed changes to the allowable building materials for homes in the city:

The board of the Lathrup Village Historical Society has several objections to the proposed amendment regarding building materials. We have two main issues: the deed restrictions on building materials recorded along with the plats of our subdivisions, and the fact that most of the city lies within a listed national historic district, which has its own guidelines.

The original deed restriction on building materials reads as follows: “All buildings erected, on any subdivision herein described, shall have for exterior construction brick, stone, stucco, concrete, concrete block or a combination thereof.” This appears to cover just the first floor. These standards have served this city well for nearly 100 years. The proposed amendment appears to be in conflict with them.

The reason Louise Lathrup offered buyers architect-designed plans when they purchased their lots was for the beauty of the neighborhood and the long-term value to the buyer. These and other restrictions in the deeds were appreciated by homeowners, as shown by a 1942 lawsuit. A group of residents sued over Louise’s plans to build cheaper homes during World War II due to temporary materials rationing. Oakland County Circuit Court enjoined her “from using for first floor exterior wall dwelling construction materials other than brick, stone, stucco, or a combination thereof.” (Craig v Kelley, 311 Mich 167).

In her appeal to the state Supreme Court, Louise admitted that economics and changing tastes caused her to vary from her original standards at times. Not to defend her, but at least there was a reasonable explanation–materials shortages during wartime. I’ll also point out that in the early years of her development, there were no zoning ordinances. There was no one to stop her from violating the restrictions except the courts.

Our other concern is that the proposal is in conflict with the Secretary of the Interior standards for the treatment of historic properties. The majority of Lathrup Village was placed on the National Register of Historic Places because it met three of the four criteria for listing. Among the arguments made in seeking the listing was that “the planning, architecture and landscape of the community have been tightly controlled so that they possess a high degree of integrity.”

The Secretary of the Interior standards specify that new construction, including additions and exterior alterations, needs to be built in a manner that protects the integrity of the historic buildings and setting. The proposal before you is said to be for the purpose of flexibility, presumably for builders. We would ask you to consider how that benefits residents.

While there is little room for new construction in the city, additions are not unusual and have the potential for much more impact. And as Chairman Piotrowski mentioned in your previous meeting, infill housing is a possibility in the future. Making these changes, which give the planning commission wide discretion to approve “alternative building material,” could significantly change our city.

We have a unique enclave here. I can’t tell you how many times a first-time visitor has expressed wonder to me personally at how charming the neighborhoods are. Our historic building standards have stood the test of time. The standards have been maintained, by and large, by our codes to make sure that new construction meets these standards.

I’ll close with Louise’s own words: “One of the chief reasons for incorporating was that it is a homogeneous town…If all homes had not been brick or stone…if all homes had not been custom-built…time could have been saved, but that idea could not have been saved.”

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