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Still Local After All these Years 

12-09-2015 17:35

Last year we marked the 20th anniversary of the 1980 amendments to the National Historic Preservation Act. That law gave us, among other things, Certified Local Governments - known in our business as CLGs. Today there are almost 1,300 local governments that carry that status in all 50 states; over 58 million of our citizens live within their boundaries.

The following essays on three state historic preservation office Certified Local Government programs are interesting not only for their "secrets of success" which, to be sure, are noteworthy but also for their confirmation of the abiding "localness" of our national historic preservation program. They reflect an important public policy truism that has guided the National Park Service in overseeing the national CLG program for these many years - that the best historic preservation is not only local but also that it will, of necessity, be different from state to state and from community to community.

By creating the CLG program, the 1980 amendments seemingly righted something left out by the founders of the national program 6in 1966 - a formal recognized role for local governments. Unlike other national historic or cultural preservation programs around the globe, the American story is largely a local one. Former U.S. House Speaker Thomas B. "Tip" O`Neill`s chestnut about all politics being local always usably morphs to our needs as, "all historic preservation is local."

We are all familiar with the pedigree of America`s historic preservation movement. Christened by Charles Hosmer as the "golden age" of preservation, America`s modern historic preservation movement grew up locally in the 1920s and 30s - in Charleston, in Savannah, in New Orleans, and in other cities and towns across this nation - Alexandria, Monterey, San Antonio, Providence, and Boston to name a few.

In 1966 the President and the Congress took historic preservation to the national stage by creating such well-known national (and seemingly non-local) institutions as the National Register of Historic Places, state historic preservation offices, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and the Section 106 review process among others. Because of these, it is easy to mistake America`s historic preservation movement nowadays as a "top down" and largely federal activity, particularly when you work within Washington, D.C.`s infamous beltway. Certainly successive (and highly successful) amendments to the federal tax code favoring historic preservation add fuel to that belief. But this would be a mistaken notion.

Every listing in the National Register, every 106 review, every historic preservation project receiving federal tax benefits is fundamentally an act of local historic preservation. The founders of the national program in 1966 seemingly anticipated this in ways that we often forget or take for granted now. Our national register, for example, remains the only one in the world that recognizes the concept of "local significance." In fact, the majority of listings in America`s national register are for local significance; this is a marvel by any measure.

There was no tabula rasa in 1966. America`s national program already existed as a collection of successful and distinctly local preservation efforts. The debut of the CLG program in 1980 sought to recognize more accurately a national state that already existed de facto.

For 20 years, the National Park Service has filled its administrative charge with respect to the CLG program in a manner than can best be described as laissez-faire. This was (and remains) carefully considered. Mindful of former Speaker O`Neill`s admonition and convinced that locals know better what meets their needs, the National Park Service established only the most minimal regulatory and administrative requirements for local governments to achieve CLG status. We believe also that local governments relate better to their state historic preservation offices than to the federal government. This is a significant paradigm shift from many federal programs, but one we continue to believe is the most profitable way to oversee this key national program.

And so you have these brief reports on three state CLG programs. How has each developed its unique program? What is important to each one? How does it differ from those of other states? Note the differences of approach and emphases in the three. Utah`s "more the merrier" approach has created an effective and empowered statewide constituency that serves well the cause of preservation and the people of Utah. Colorado has seen unprecedented change in many of it small historic mining communities over the last decade. Population increases, eco- and recreation- tourism, and state-sanctioned gaming in Colorado have all created challenges and opportunities that local preservation is both rising and adapting to. And uniquely! At the time of the 1980 amendments, North Carolina already had 50 local governments sold on the preservation idea. North Carolina`s tack has been to work on professionalization, growth, and training of its commissions.

As we face this new century, Americans are increasingly concerned about preserving a quality of life and uniqueness of place in the face of growing sprawl development, traffic congestion, and cultural homogenization. What often-times best embodies that "placeness" is the historic community, town, city, and open space most familiar and comfortable to us. Alan Gusslow speaks eloquently in A Sense of Place: "We never speak of an environment we have known, it is always places we have known. We are homesick for places, we are reminded of places, it is the sounds and smells and sight of places which haunt us and against which we often measure our present."

As we enter the new century, our national historic preservation program happily and rightly remains rooted at the local level. The Certified Local Government program holds an important, though oftentimes underused, place in that web. Think again of the statistic cited in the first paragraph of this introduction - 58 million people live in CLGs. Compare that to how many people live in the one million properties now listed in the National Register. We will always serve best the goals of the National Historic Preservation Act when we are reminded of the "localness" of historic preservation, when we empower citizens to hold onto the uniqueness of their communities, and when we understand the potential support for historic preservation at the national level that lies largely untapped locally- in our towns and communities. Enjoy these articles and think locally!

Publication Date: Summer 2001


Author(s):de Teel Patterson Tiller

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