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As a society, we have long recognized the importance of preserving our past. The issue of historic preservation is governed by numerous federal, state, and local laws. In addition to the various laws, decisions rendered by courts in interpreting the laws have played an important role in historic preservation. In 1978, the United States Supreme Court rendered its decision in the case of Penn Central Transportation Co. v. City of New York, 438 U.S. 104 (1978). Why is the Penn Central decision of continuing importance today and what is its significance to a historic homeowner?


In 1965, New York City adopted its Landmark Preservation Law. Briefly stated, the purpose of the Law was to protect structures of historic importance. In accordance with the Law, the Grand Central Terminal was designated as a "landmark." Subsequently, the owners and others sought to construct an office building atop the Grand Central Terminal. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission refused to approve the plans and cited the Landmark Preservation Law as the basis therefor. The owners and others initiated an action to challenge the validity of the Law.


The primary issue in the Penn Central case was whether the Commission's action in applying the Law was valid and whether it constituted a "taking" in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.


The Court upheld the Commission's application of New York City's Landmark Preservation Law as valid. In essence, the Court found that historic preservation was a valid governmental objective. Moreover, the Court held that, although the law had a more severe impact on some property owners, it was not unconstitutionally discriminatory. Lastly, and most importantly, the Court found that there was no prohibitory "taking" as a result of the Commission's decision.

In conclusion, the Penn Central decision established preservation law and the goal of historic preservation as valid governmental concerns. Furthermore, the Penn Central decision established important parameters with regard to what constitutes a compensable "taking" in the context of historic preservation. In the years since the Penn Central decision was rendered, many courts have rendered decisions with regard to historic preservation issues, but the Penn Central decision remains of enduring significance.

For more information of interest to historic homeowners, contact your local historic preservation resource or:

The National Trust for Historic Preservation

1785 Massachusetts Avenue, NW

Washington, D.C. 20036

Telephone: (202) 588-6035

Copyright 2012 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.