EDITORIAL: Want to know why people are against the nomination to the National Historic Register? Here’s why

July 23, 2021
By Marcy Shortuse

The National Register of Historic Places topic has been beaten into the ground since it began last year. No one knows this better than me, trust me. We may (or may not) be coming to some sort of closure, though, as on Thursday, Aug. 5 a meeting will be held in Tallahassee to determine whether the Boca Grande Historic Residential District meets eligibility criteria to even be on that list. If you’re like me, you’re probably thinking there’s no question it will be found eligible, if based on the true historical facts surrounding the residential historic district and not the half-truths and incorrect information provided in the nomination the Florida historic preservation board will be looking at on August 5.

So why are so many people not so happy about the thought of being on the Register?

The first big problem is that not every homeowner that would be affected has been notified, and that is a fact. Between pandemic quarantines, postal issues, property changing hands (at least 10 homes in the district have changed hands since the nomination) and many other factors involved with people shuffling back and forth between their homes, the mail has not kept up. Written notification is required for all property owners regarding a nomination to the Register.

Even if we put aside that big issue, there are several others. The nomination itself is incorrect in many ways. As of the last revision there were still incorrect addresses, numerous architectural style errors, no real rationale shown as to why certain houses were included in the nomination while other historic homes weren’t, and it gave no conclusive connection to famous historic people other than Louise du Pont Crowninshield (though there were many more).

Also, a majority of people who are property owners within that district believe that having to fight to NOT have your property placed on a public list is a half step away from being threatened with eminent domain. By definition it is very similar: Eminent domain is the right of a government or its agent to expropriate private property for public use. The primary difference is that the people within our historic district won’t get paid, which is what occurs when the government takes your land for public use through eminent domain.

While the policy of the National Historic Register states that no one whose home is on the Register must allow people inside, it doesn’t account for visitors stopping by on the outside. In a strange twist of fate, one of the people who were the most fearful of tourists coming by the busload to Boca Grande when she was the chairman of the Boca Grande Community Planning Panel – Lynne Seibert – is also one of the most outspoken people to support this nomination. In fact, Lynne Seibert admitted she sponsored the public online meeting with Ruben Acosta, the Survey and Registration Supervisor of the Bureau of Historic Preservation, Division of Historical Resources, and his people.

That’s pretty strange, considering no one can argue that one of the surest ways to get your exclusive little island put on a tour bus route is to declare that the entire bottom half of it is on the National Register of Historic Places.

In another nod to the similarities to eminent domain, some of the people who are proponents of the district’s placement on the Register have tried to make it seem like the district’s homeowners could get paid, in a sense. These people originally brought residents to the nomination table with promises of potential funding if a home in the district was damaged by storm or other act of God, need for rehabilitation, etc. They said these homes would not have to rebuild to current standards if it were necessary to renovate if they were placed on the Register. They said there are grants and tax subsidies for those whose homes are on the National Register.

In truth, what so many people didn’t realize was that they already had those things. The county designation of the island’s historic district already provides those measures. The people who tried to play that off like this was a brand-new option, were simply not being honest … because you can’t tell me they were ignorant to the facts.

When you look at Section 196.1997, Florida Statutes, it specifically states that it “allows counties and municipalities to adopt ordinances allowing a property tax exemption for up to 100 percent of the increase in assessed improvements resulting from an approved rehabilitation of a qualified historic property. The exemption may remain in effect for up to 10 years. The exemption applies only to that portion of the property tax levied by the unit of government granting the exemption.”

Here’s the important part.

“Qualified properties may be residential or commercial and must be either individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places, a contributing building in a National Register District, or designated as historic under the provisions of a local preservation ordinance.”

I know that many people were misled by the few who campaigned for this nomination, as I watched several of them stand up at two different public meetings and argue for the nomination, based on the grounds they would have federal tax protection for rehabilitation of their homes and from the “50 percent” rule. I also saw the confusion on their faces when the county attorney told them that they already had that protection under Lee County.

That means these property owners who stood and spoke at the meetings were given wrong information by someone they felt was reliable, someone they trusted enough to have the wherewithal to stand up and speak in a public forum and recite that information to the crowd.

When I have confirmation that some person or group has intentionally used subterfuge as a way to further their own personal agenda, I start to seriously question what their end game is. So far it’s a bit hard to determine, but I definitely have my theories.

It is difficult to believe that someone from another town can fill out a form and try to change lives in a town 50 miles away, particularly when they claim to have no real reason to do so. Mikki Hartig, the woman who filled out the Boca Grande residential historic district nomination to the Register, swears she is not working for any person, group or entity on the island.

She has said she did it just because she wanted to. Because it “was time.”

While she has done other historical research and filings for the Boca Grande commercial district and The Gasparilla Inn & Club, the difference is that no one asked her to create this nomination for the residential historic district.

At least, that’s what she says.

Hartig made it clear that this was just on a whim, with no suggestion from anyone who lives here … which goes against the majority of nominations to this Register, and actually goes against the rules of propriety, as far as many homeowners are concerned.

While Hartig said she has spoken with several homeowners about the nomination, very few have claimed to have spoken face to face with her. She not only left the residents in the lurch as far as information regarding the creation of this nomination, she also flanked the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board and the Lee County Preservation Board. There are still numerous incidents when private citizens had to let Lee County know that new documentation regarding this nomination had come into being, so Hartig wasn’t corresponding with them either.

This brings up so many questions. Wouldn’t she be sure to do these things if this was all on the up and up? Wouldn’t anyone do these things if they truly wanted their dream of seeing the Boca Grande residential historic district on the Registry come to fruition? Why wouldn’t she worry about putting the commercial district on the National Registry first? Why was this nomination so important to her that she faced admonishment time after time in the face of her absence of disclosure and the presentation – and appeal – of a questionable and shoddy nomination to the National Park Service?

Using Hartig’s argument that she “just wanted to see it happen because it was the next logical step” after the creation of the Boca Grande Historic Commercial District, I will debate that it is not logical at all. The difference between nominating a building or commercial district and a residential district is this – in a residential district, people live there. When people purchase expensive homes in an expensive neighborhood and pay expensive taxes, they expect to be able do what they want, when they want, with that property (within the confines of zoning and the Boca Grande Historic Preservation Board, of course), with a modicum of privacy. There are many people who purchase homes here who value their privacy very much and have paid the money to back up that expectation of privacy.

Hartig is wasting time and tax dollars by nominating, then appealing, then rehashing, an historic district in which an overwhelming amount of the property owners have gone to the trouble of writing and sending notarized affidavits that they do not want to be on the Register. Local and county boards have also expressed their dissatisfaction with the nomination and voted it down.

And yet Hartig persists, leading to the logical question of whether or not she truly is doing this for her own pleasure and work portfolio boosting, or if someone else is behind the scenes pulling her strings.

Hopefully it won’t matter soon, but the way this crazy nomination charade has unfolded, who knows what’s in store for us next.

Marcy Shortuse is the editor of the Boca Beacon. She can be reached at mshortuse@bocabeacon.com.