In addition to saving historic resources across the country, preservationists often find themselves fighting to save a different kind of resource: the historic preservation laws themselves. Challenges to the laws that protect historically significant buildings, neighborhoods, and landscapes come from all angles and at all levels of government. The validity of these preservation laws is well established by the decisions of federal and state courts, but the need to protect existing law is especially important when the challenge is focused on a major city.
Preservationists in Chicago scored an important victory recently in a long-standing legal battle over the Chicago Landmarks Ordinance, when Judge Sophia Hall ruled on May 2 that Chicago’s preservation law is not “unduly vague.” The judge issued this ruling in response to a constitutional challenge filed by opponents of the law, who argued that the wording of the law is so unclear that it must be struck down as unconstitutional.
The court’s ruling strongly rejected the argument that the Chicago preservation ordinance is vague, and instead held that the language of the law does have a common, intelligible meaning. In other words, Chicago’s ordinance can be fairly understood by ordinary people without having to guess at what the law means.
Taking a common-sense approach, Judge Hall stated that words in the preservation ordinance such as “value,” “heritage,” “significant,” and historic “style” must be understood not only according to their common, dictionary meaning, but also in the context of the surrounding neighborhoods’ physical characteristics. Judge Hall also noted the importance of interpreting preservation ordinances in light of the purposes they are designed to serve.
The Landmarks Ordinance in Chicago, for example, is designed to promote the preservation of Chicago’s heritage, character, and neighborhood vitality in order to foster civic pride, enhance the city’s attractiveness, and to provide economic and cultural benefits to the community. For this reason, as the court explained, it would not make sense to interpret Chicago’s Landmark Ordinance in a way that would jeopardize these values.
Judge Hall’s decision is important, too, because many cities across the country have looked to Chicago to help guide their own preservation efforts. If the City of Chicago had not prevailed, then the decision would have been used by preservation opponents as a basis to challenge preservation laws in other cities.
The 27-page opinion provides a virtual textbook for property owners, local preservation commissions, and courts to follow in how to interpret historic preservation laws. Although the decision is likely to be appealed, the case sets an important precedent for future challenges to other local preservation laws. The Trust has provided assistance and technical support to the city and joined in an earlier filing as a friend of the court.