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The National Alliance of Preservation Commissions: Taking Stock at Its 20th Anniversary  

12-09-2015 17:35

In the fall of 1982 a flurry of handbills spread around the National Preservation Conference in Louisville, Ky., announced the formation of a new national organization for local preservation commissions. Some six months later in March 1983, at a meeting of the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers in Charleston, S.C., the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions was officially formed when Mayor Joseph Riley made Charleston’s review board the first dues-paying member. Why was this new organization needed?

When the NAPC was established there were about 700 known historic preservation commissions nationwide. A major impetus for communities to establish historic preservation commissions began in 1980, when Congress amended the National Historic Preservation Act to provide direct federal financial assistance to communities engaged in preservation activities who agreed to meet the standards of the new Certified Local Government (CLG) program. To be a Certified Local Government, a county or municipality must pass a “preservation ordinance” and create a “commission” (may be called a “review board” or other name) of citizens to oversee local preservation activity. In most communities, the commission is an advisory body for local government; in others, the decisions of the commission carry the force of law.

By the early 1980s thousands of commission members and hundreds of professional commission staff across the country were dealing with similar problems of guiding development in historic areas while helping property owners and neighborhood leaders to achieve their goals of community revitalization. Commission members are volunteers, and while many have experience as grassroots community activists, they often lack relevant professional training.

Clearly absent were mechanisms for training commission members, a forum for discussing mutual problems, training materials and communication devices, and a way to represent the particular needs of the commissions to government agencies and preservation partners. Some type of national coordinating group was needed.

The Alliance launched its first program for commissions in October 1983 in conjunction with the National Preservation Conference in San Antonio. Commission members from around the country met in small groups to discuss such topics as design guidelines, educating the public, and how to run an effective meeting.

Five years later the NAPC had grown in membership and was recognized as the voice of local commissions, representing their interests to the National Park Service, National Trust, National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, and on Capitol Hill. The organization began to focus on ways to increase the effectiveness of commission members and the staffs supporting them. It launched a newsletter and sponsored training workshops for commissioners and CLG coordinators in the SHPOs (state historic preservation offices). The NAPC also began working with the CLG coordinators to form statewide alliances of commissions. The NAPC now works closely with statewide commission associations in Michigan, Maryland, and Illinois, among others.

One challenge for the Alliance has been to track the growth of commissions and to create a strong and effective network. In 1992, and then again in 1998, the NAPC, with help from the National Trust and the National Park Service, compiled an accurate and upto- date list of all known historic preservation commissions and architectural review boards. A 1981 survey by the Trust had identified 832 commissions; the 1992 survey recorded at least 1,803 commissions, a dramatic increase of 117 percent! Today well over 2,000 commissions operate in communities across the country.

Training community leaders who serve as preservation commissioners has been a top priority of the NAPC. In 1997 the NAPC conducted a survey of CLG coordinators in SHPOs to develop a thumbnail sketch of how commissions are being trained in each state. That information helped in the organization of the first NAPC National Commission Forum held in Denver, Colo., in July 1998. More than 400 people attended, participating in focus group discussions and plenary sessions. The Forum was repeated two years later in Pittsburgh and in 2002 in San Antonio.

The Commission Assistance and Mentoring Program (CAMP) has been a new and visibly successful project of the NAPC. Twelve statewide or local CAMPs (workshops) were conducted in 2002 and 14 more are scheduled for 2003.

As the Alliance celebrates its 20th anniversary, we’ve asked several individuals who have worked with the organization from the beginning to share their thoughts about it.

Impact on Local Historic Preservation

The NAPC has clearly helped its members become more knowledgeable and effective community leaders.

Part of the initial and lasting need for the NAPC comes from the fact that local preservation issues sometimes do get contentious and the NAPC could provide support through a national network. We could show commissions that they were not alone. Dan Becker, NAPC board Member

When I joined, there was almost instant recognition that this was a service that was needed all across this country. The NAPC has provided the source for “best practices” information for commissioners. Through the NAPC I was able to understand how important the need to keep the preservation issues well articulated, and small enough to win and big enough to make a difference. Kevin Tremble, former NAPC board member

Such support is vital as commissions take on new roles and challenges. The increase in the number of commissions has meant more staffed positions in local government. The scope of commissions’ work has broadened -- landscapes, archeological sites, and recent past resources are being surveyed, designated, and protected. Procedures and policies have become more sophisticated. Yet most commissions still must struggle to make other local agencies and the public understand their role in protecting historic resources.

There has been a tremendous expansion of commissions’ perception of their mission. Instead of focusing narrowly on historic districts and landmarks, commissions are more broadly involved in local planning and quality of life issues. They are anticipating trends better and embracing resources earlier in the “threat” cycle, which has helped establish the “recent past” movement, for example. Dan Becker

There are more commissions; there are more districts; there are greater needs for training for commissioners; historic preservation commissions are still not viewed as partners in the local land use and zoning game; we still don’t have enough positive tools to encourage property owners to spend extra money “to do the right thing,” especially where land values have exploded. Kevin Tremble

Relationship with National Partners

Acronyms abound in the world of preservation and NAPC is clearly part of the list -- SHPOs, NPS (National Park Service), NTHP (National Trust for Historic Preservation), among others -- that is so confusing to newcomers. But more importantly, the NAPC actively works with the national partners to support their work and to help shape national preservation policies.

Local preservation gained national status. The NAPC got those communities together, as local people saw that commissions were facing the same problems all over the country. It provided a voice on the national level. Cherilyn Widell, founding executive director of NAPC

The national historic preservation partners have become sensitized to the needs and accomplishments of local commissions. They now realize that preservation is truly a three-way partnership between the national, state, and local levels. Bernie Callan, founding board chair of NAPC

There is a clearer understanding of how the national partners can facilitate the work of commissions. There was always the will to support local preservation, but the NAPC clearly articulated the statement of need to the national partners and engendered the type of action needed from the national partners. At the initiation of the Alliance, but only through the support of the national partners, came workshops for certified local governments, teaching programs for commissions, as well as national forums, publications, and surveys. Jack Williams, former NAPC board chair

The NAPC offers Preservation Action a window into the local preservation world in our dealings on Capitol Hill. We know that all preservation is local in the true sense of the word and those local voices are critical to what we do on Capitol Hill. Susan West Montgomery, president, Preservation Action

Challenges and Opportunities

Not surprisingly, commissions face new challenges -- changes in technology and building materials, the McMansion/teardown craze, increased sprawl, ever-growing parking demands. Balancing the wishes of property owners with the needs of the larger community has always been the fundamental role for commissions, but midway through the 20-year history of the NAPC property rights advocacy became a national buzz phrase. How have these changes affected the work of commissions?

Many of the core activities remain the same, however the expectation for our performance has risen. As we engage in the classic activities of survey, nomination, and protection our process and language have had to become more sophisticated, professional, and legalistic. These performance performance requirements place a greater burden on staff to commissions as well as on the actions of commissioners. Jack Williams

Property rights issues and religious freedom issues have all had an effect on how commissions do business. They have caused commission to become smarter in the fields of politics and procedures. Bernie Callan

Today is a new era of more sophisticated challenges and as business trends exert more influence over a wider area -- sprawl, quality of life issues -- we see the power of big business to reach into the smallest of communities along with their power to influence legislation. Pauline Chase Harrell, former NAPC board member.

No matter what is said about the work of commissions at the local level, comments by Professor Robert Stipe at a training workshop for commissions, held in 1983, still ring true. When it comes to the local review commission “there is no magic; we are only protecting small parts of a very large place slowly; preservation of a structure still comes down to the price of land and the value of what sits on it; a commissioner’s job is a thankless one that involves reasonable issues upon which reasonable people can reasonably disagree.”

As it starts its third decade, the NAPC will continue working to make that “thankless” job a fulfilling and empowering one for those who do it, and a respected one in the communities they serve.

Publication Date: September/October 2003

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Author(s):Pratt Cassity