Preservation Police: Lock The Doors!
On a March day in 2003, staffers from the D.C. historic preservation office arrived at Laura Elkins' and John Robbins' house accompanied by D.C. police. The visitors had a warrant to search the house. "The officials went throughout the home (including the bedrooms of sick children home from school), opening drawers, observing, and taking photos," says a new opinion by federal court Judge Rosemary Collyer. Elkins' daughter, then 14 and suffering with a high fever, hid under the covers while the police searched her room. When Elkins' son, then 17, tried to eat breakfast, city inspectors ordered him to leave the kitchen.
Elkins' crime? She lives in the Capitol Hill Historic District, applied for permits to renovate part of her house, and was granted those permits. But after the city approved the renovations, neighbors complained, and Elkins' nightmare began. As the court puts it in a memo dismissing portions of both Elkins' and the District's cases, even though a hearing officer decided that the family had properly obtained its permits, "Historic Preservation Officer David Maloney second-guessed the original approvals and sought to stop the project, asserting that [Elkins'] construction was inconsistent with the historic character of the neighborhood."
Both Elkins and Robbins are architects; Elkins works primarily as an artist, a painter whose works are often shown in local galleries. The renovation was intended largely to create studio space for her.
Even as D.C. officials assured the courts that Elkins' building plan was perfectly fine, Maloney "seems to have organized a campaign against the construction," the court said. The city switched gears, obtained a search warrant in an effort to the family's plans and construction records, and staged their raid. They seized documents, receipts, invoices and Elkins' notebook.
Elkins took the city to court and won suppression of the evidence; a hearing officer ruled that the District had no right to search the family's drawers for records, though he endorsed the city's concern that a sloped roof that Elkins planned to build might be out of place in the historic neighborhood.
Elkins took her case to federal court, alleging that the city violated her due process rights and illegally searched her house. Now Collyer has ruled that the city violated Elkins' Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. And while the judge acknowledges that the city has a right to enforce its land-use restrictions, she nonetheless slaps the District for failing to inform the family of its rights to appeal the city's decisions against them. In the spring, a separate trial will determine the damages the District must pay to Elkins.
The horror stories about the District's preservation police keep on coming. When a federal judge who notes the importance of maintaining good land use practices goes out of her way to criticize the city's chief preservation officer for improper and overzealous behavior, there is a problem, one that the city's highest officials need to address.
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