When is a rusty chain-link fence anything but an eyesore? When the Board of Architectural Review decides it’s aesthetically and historically important.
In a saga that sounds like something out of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” BAR officials made Bradley King, a resident of Alexandria’s Parker-Gray Historic District, pay a $250 fee to appear before them and explain why he tore down a decrepit chain-link fence in front of his 1955 town house. The city “let Mr. King off” (meaning he didn’t have to replace the fence with another of similar ilk) but didn’t reimburse his fee. And for good measure, issued a nine-page report explaining the significance of his former fence.
Think about this: A city employee or employees spent the time to compile nine pages of reasons why an old fence — which most people would reasonably conclude to be blight — shouldn’t have been torn down. The report contained the following justifications:
• It was an example of “early or original chain-link fences.”
• Its preservation would “encourage study and interest in American history.”
• The fence was “a character-defining feature of these minimally designed vernacular buildings.”
• Chain-link fences should be preserved because they “promote the general welfare.”
We laugh at this example. It’s egregious to the point of comical. But the humor is lost on residents of Alexandria’s historic districts who must endure ongoing governmental intrusion onto their property. The interference is no less in Old Town’s Old and Historic District, where residents encounter enormous frustration as they attempt to upgrade their historic dwellings to 21st-century livability.
Alexandria is a historically important city. There is much that needs to be protected against destruction. Unfortunately, when city bureaucrats exceed the sensible and harass residents over small and obvious items, it undermines the larger goal of true historic preservation — and progress.
Larger issues of private property and individual rights versus governmental authority also are at play. Ownership of private property is protected in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This protection was against unlawful government seizure; it’s safe to say the founders never imagined governmental micromanagement of property to the extent Mr. King endured.
Though Mr. King’s fence issue was resolved, the case has left many in Parker-Gray wishing their neighborhood was not a historic district. Going forward, the BAR needs to be clearer about what it is truly trying to preserve and make sure those priorities pass the common sense test.
For instance, why was this fence the object of such a furor, but the BAR allowed older public housing buildings in Parker-Gray to be torn down for redevelopment? Is age, scarcity or beauty, or something else, the priority?
In an era of budget shortfalls, perhaps we have too many city employees if the best use of their time is to wax poetic over chain-link fences.