In a Zone 

Government meddling is mostly useless—except when it comes to old houses

Over here on the west side of town, my Sylvan Park and Whitland neighbors are choosing up sides, getting ready to fight the last battle over conservation zoning, which puts minor restrictions on remodeling or demolishing houses of a certain age.
Over here on the west side of town, my Sylvan Park and Whitland neighbors are choosing up sides, getting ready to fight the last battle over conservation zoning, which puts minor restrictions on remodeling or demolishing houses of a certain age. Ever since the TV networks came up with this red state/blue state thing, people have gone a little psycho about any kind of politics. If the conservation zoning debate in Area 2 follows the pattern of the 2004 presidential elections, it won’t be long before people who started out as perfectly good neighbors take to picking up pitchforks, setting out booby-trapped yard signs and calling each other ugly names. First, let me say that I’m strongly opposed to government meddling, and I’m not a big fan of government in general. If I had my way, politicians would be drafted, not elected, and local government would be pretty much limited to arresting dangerous criminals, putting out fires and picking up trash. Besides that, I’m not much in favor of having a lot of silly rules, because silly rules make for bad behavior. As I recall from one of my few trips to Sunday school, God Himself made a rule that Eve could do just about anything she wanted in the Garden of Eden, as long as she didn’t mess around with the apple tree. As soon as God wasn’t looking, what did Eve do? Life outside of Eden has been tough ever since. Here in Tennessee, we’ve got a law that says a man may not appear in public—even in a strip club—with a “discernible” erection. Does anybody think that law gets enforced? Do we really want our police officers spending time checking for turgid manflesh and appearing in court to describe that flesh? But I digress. My point is, do we really want or need Metro government telling us what kind of remodeling we can and can’t do on old houses? Well, yeah. We do. First, the government gets a say in all remodeling, whether we like it or not. The government’s going to give you the treatment. You might as well get the first-class treatment, which is what you get with conservation zoning. If you’re going to remodel your house or put an addition on it, you’ll have to get a building permit and building inspections. As the work on any remodeling job progresses, Metro will send codes inspectors out to check the work. Believe me, the observations and conclusions of the Metro codes inspectors are likely to be useless, or worse than useless. A few years back, I found hot—as in electrified—water pipes in an 80-year-old house that inspectors had approved that very morning. The result could’ve been death by bathtub. Truth is, I’ve never seen any building—new construction or old-house remodeling—that wasn’t full of violations that Metro codes inspectors missed. And not to be too harsh on these guys, but there isn’t a lot of design talent in the Metro Codes Department. I think it’s safe to say that nobody there is an old-house specialist. On the other hand, the folks at the Metro Historic Zoning Commission (MHZC) have considerable old-house experience, and they do excellent design work. Best I can tell, input from the MHZC is the best free old-house design advice you’ll ever get. It’s crazy not to take advantage of it. When it comes down to working on old houses, forget politics. Go with pragmatism. Working on old houses is a specialty. Old houses don’t need to be touched—or inspected—by people whose building knowledge just goes back to the disco era. If your old house needs an addition or a remodeling, it’s just plain smart to start with design advice from MHZC, then hire an old-house-savvy contractor to do the work. Most likely, you’ll end up with a job that will add value to your house and to your neighborhood. Conservation zoning provides a good and simple way of getting the best work done and having the best financial outcome. If you decide to grab the other end of the stick and get all hardheaded about your property rights, you might end up with a good job, or you might not. Unless you hire a talented architect with good old-house knowledge, and a contractor to match, you’re likely to end up with a half-assed, ugly job that’ll cost you big money come resale time. If you’re determined to take your house, your pocketbook and your neighborhood downhill, cutting the old-house-savvy folks out of the loop is a great way to do it. You Sylvan Parkers and Whitlanders who are complaining that conservation zoning won’t let you build out the front or sides of your houses, listen to me: ask any decent architect or real estate agent if a frontal addition will help, or hurt, the value of your property. It will hurt. As far as building out to the side, the lot was skinny when you bought it. You never had that option. If you need an addition, put it on the back of the house. It’ll cost less than building out the front or side, and it’ll make you more money at resale time.  

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