Threats. Intimidation. Yard signs. Snotty e-mails. Yes, the knives are out in Oakhurst, where the proposed creation of what would be Decatur's largest historic district has resulted in a nasty neighborhood-wide squabble in which many homeowners have been forced to choose sides.
Terry Michel, a real estate agent who says she supports voluntary design guidelines rather than city imposed building restrictions, says sheâs stopped discussing the issue with neighbors because the rhetoric on both sides has become too overheated.
âThe vitriol is off-putting to me,â Michel explains. âItâs like watching Ann Coulter debate Al Frankin.â
So what is it about a historic district that has so many peoplesâ knickers in a wad?
Mainly, the argument comes down to control over oneâs own property. If a house is included in the district, then the owner would need to get a âcertificate of appropriatenessâ to tear it down, build an addition or make significant exterior changes. Construction plans that arenât seen as keeping within the historic character of the neighborhood â say, replacing a 1920s Craftsman bungalow with a modernist stucco triplex â may not be allowed.
Proponents argue that creating the district will protect homeowner investments by ensuring that developers canât tear down an older house to build a larger home that doesnât fit in with the surrounding architecture and scale of construction. According to the pro-district Oakhurst Historic District website:
âToday we are faced with a threat of demolition of the history of Oakhurst and a further burying of our historic resources â¦ . We are advocating the use of local historic district to authorize design guidelines for new development and renovation that is not destructive to the areaâs historic character.â
Opponents have their own website, called ONE Oakhurst, where posters express concern about losing the ability to build on their own property or make changes to their homes without seeking permission:
âThere is one indisputable fact for every [historic district] homeowner anywhere in Decatur: They lose the right to be in charge of their own property. The city government and their neighbors may have more control of their property than they do themselves!!â
Both sites contain pleas for an end to name-calling and personal attacks.
Amanda Thompson of the Decatur Planning Department is in charge of overseeing the approval process for historic districts. Sheâs helped form two other districts, but says that the sheer size of the Oakhurst proposal â nearly 350 homes â makes it difficult to reach a neighborhood-wide consensus. Under Decatur rules, however, homeowners canât simply decide to opt out; the creation of historic districts is determined by the City Commission, not local referendum. The final decision will probably come early next year, Thompson says.
In the meantime, Michel hopes her neighbors can discuss their differences amicably.
âBoth sides feel very passionate about this,â she says. âMy position is that the answer lies somewhere in the middle and, unfortunately, thatâs not a popular position.â
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