Hearing will take pulse on historic preservation

Historic Preservation Month typically comes and goes without controversy.

Past commemorations have included coloring contests for kids and the presentation of awards from the Hinsdale Historic Preservation Commission. We’ve published everything from a single article or editorial to a month-long series reminding residents of the architectural treasures the village is fortunate to have within its boundaries.

This year the discussion around historic preservation has reached a fevered pitch.

Many preservations argue the only way to ensure historic homes survive is to give village officials the legal authority to prevent their demolition. They point to other municipalities whose emphasis on preservation is reflected in more stringent zoning laws.

Many homeowners counter that individual property rights entitle them to freely develop their land in accordance with zoning regulations. They resist the notion that they should be deterred from or punished for doing something they are legally allowed to do. They point to the high cost of renovation and contend that restrictions would only lower the value of historic homes.

And so the two sides appear to be at an impasse.

The discussion will continue next month when the Hinsdale Plan Commission holds a public hearing to determine what residents think of a six-month moratorium on the demolition of homes in the Robbins Park Historic District and buildings in the central business district — both of which are on the National Register of Historic Places — along with any other landmarked or historically significant property in town. Hinsdale trustees have proposed the pause to provide time to craft regulations aimed at promoting historic preservation.

Given the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the hearing will be held on Zoom. That’s not ideal, but it’s better than delaying this discussion until all restrictions on public gatherings have been lifted.

Residents are encouraged to submit their opinions in writing before the hearing, emailing them to village clerk Christine Bruton at [email protected] with “public comment — demolition moratorium” in the subject line. Written comments may be mailed to her at Village Hall, 19 E. Chicago Ave., Hinsdale, IL 60521.

The stakes here are clear, Village President Tom Cauley noted in March when trustees agreed to request a plan commission hearing.

“When all these homes are gone, they’re gone,” he said.

Undeniably true.

We agree with preservationists that historic homes add significant value to the village — even if many individual homeowners would prefer not to live in one. And there are plenty of homes in town that could be torn down for redevelopment — even if the lots are not as desirable as some of the ones in the Robbins subdivision.

We also believe that if Hinsdale is to make headway on historic preservation, tools are needed to both educate owners of historic treasures as to their inherent community value and to incentivize those owners to protect that value. Those who allow a home to languish, letting decades pass without updating the interior, are essentially inviting a buyer to tear it down. Not every buyer has the time, patience, resources — or interest, for that matter — to gut a 100-year-old home from floor to ceiling.

But our opinion isn’t the most important one here.

The National Register was created with the philosophy that structures and districts on the list have historical significance and are worthy of preservation.

The question now is simple. Do Hinsdale residents agree?