Forum Journal & Forum Focus

State: California's Stewardship of Historic Resources 

04-09-2019 11:40

Every preservationist knows that "heritage resources provide not only continuity with our past, but foster community pride, stimulate economic activity, improve housing, enhance the quality of life, and draw hundreds of thousands of visitors every year."

These were among the words California's Governor Pete Wilson used in his recent executive order calling for a renewed public policy favoring historic preservation in the Golden State.

Executive Order W-26-92, signed by the governor in April, directs each state agency to "administer the cultural and historic resources under its control in a spirit of stewardship and trusteeship for future generations." This important policy imperative is augmented by a number of specific responsibilities and duties, including completion of inventories of state-owned resources and the development of resources-management plans and policies.

Each state agency is ordered to appoint a key official as its agency preservation officer "to ensure that the state's policies regarding the protection of cultural and historic resources within the jurisdiction of such state agency are carried out." These agency preservation officers, in consultation with the state historic preservation officer and, as appropriate, the state historical building safety board, must "develop and institute feasible and prudent policies and a management plan to preserve and maintain [the agency's] significant heritage resources."

The governor also made it clear that each state agency is to "ensure that the protection of significant heritage resources are given full consideration in all of its land-use and capital-outlay decisions."

While most of the executive order addresses the stewardship of state-owned resources, several important provisions are intended to benefit preservation of all historic resources. In consultation with the Office of Historic Preservation, agencies are directed, "to institute procedures to ensure that state plans and programs contribute to the preservation and enhancement of significant nonstate-owned heritage resources."

Perhaps even more far-reaching is the direction to the resources agency and the governor's Office of Planning and Research to provide guidance concerning the applicability of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) "in order to provide for the consistent protection and preservation of the heritage resources of California."

In a state known for such natural disasters as earthquakes, the executive order affirms California's commitment to the protection of historic resources in post disaster recovery. Addressing this issue, the final words of the executive order state that the "historic value of structures is to be preserved and enhanced, unless the state or local agency finds the structure presents an imminent threat of harm to the public or of damage to adjacent property."

Following the 1989 Lorna Prieta earthquake, some historic buildings were needlessly lost despite emergency legislation that had enacted the approach affirmed by the governor in the executive order. Litigation by a coalition that included the National Trust and the California Preservation Foundation was unsuccessful in preventing the demolition of the damaged but repairable St. George Hotel in Santa Cruz. Preservationists contended that the demolition was barred by the emergency legislation and by the CEQA. Despite a ten-month delay by the city and evidence from expert structural engineers, the court ruled that the building constituted an "imminent threat."

Preservationists also held that the CEQA exemption for a gubematorially declared state of emergency applies only if the condition of the building constitutes an emergency project under the CEQA's statutory definition. Again, the court ruled against preservationists. Some viewed this as tantamount to a blanket exemption allowing any demolition every time a state of emergency was declared. In the executive order, the governor wrote that the state of emergency exemption to the CEQA shall not be construed to apply unless "the condition of the historic structures or resources poses an emergency as by [CEQA definition]."

With the ink barely dry on the executive order' preservationists were reminded of the importance of the provisions regarding CEQA and disaster response. Twenty-four hours after Doug Wheeler, California's secretary for resources, presented the executive order at the opening session of the seventeenth annual California Preservation Conference in Eureka, Humboldt County was hit with three very strong earthquakes.

The conference had attracted the state's leading historic preservation experts, who quickly formed technical-assistance teams. These teams fanned out around the county bringing with them copies of the executive order. If very few historic buildings have been demolished in Humboldt County to date, luck certainly has a great deal to do with it, both because of the pattern of damage and because the very experts who often arrive days or weeks after earthquakes-when demolition decisions have already been made-were first on the scene and providing assistance within minutes and hours of the quake. But it certainly helped to have the words of the executive order to add the imprimatur of state policy.

The executive order appears to be part of a comprehensive effort by the Wilson administration to incorporate historic preservation into California's environmental agenda. When the governor announced his environmental blueprint, "Resourceful California," last year, the enactment of a California Register of Historic Resources was one of fourteen proposed initiatives.

Working with an ad hoc task force of heritage groups, including the California Preservation Foundation and the western regional office of the National Trust, the Resources Agency of the State of California, which includes the Office of Historic Preservation, has helped to craft legislation for a comprehensive California Register. The bill has just passed the legislature and been signed by the governor.

Under the bill the California Register will automatically include properties listed or determined eligible for listing in the National Register and certain resources designated under such state programs as Landmarks and Points of Historical Interest. Nominations to the Register may include individual resources and districts, as well as locally designated resources. Historic-resources surveys may also be nominated, if performed according to the criteria of the California Office of Historic Preservation.

Although the California Register bill requires owner consent for designation, the sources can be determined eligible without owner consent. Local governments are provided an opportunity to join in the nomination and/or to comment on it. Owner and local-government objections are to be given "full and careful consideration." Written findings by the California Historical Resources Commission are required in cases of objections to nominations.

Wilson's leadership is no doubt aided by the team he has assembled to head the resources agency. Secretary Wheeler is a former executive vice president of the National Trust. Obviously, no one had to explain to Wheeler the importance of historic preservation and its relationship to environmentalism. In coming to California from the World Wildlife Fund, he brought with him Michael Mantell as undersecretary for resources. Mantell is the author of "Creating Successful Communities" and a coauthor of A Handbook on Historic Preservation Law. In pushing for a comprehensive program, preservationists have also benefitted from the insights and political know-how of assistant secretary Carol Whiteside. Whiteside, a former mayor of Modesto, has been instrumental in building a consensus for a California Register.

In a time when California looks less and less like the Golden State as it is plagued by floods, earthquakes, fires, and civil unrest as well as the most severe fiscal crisis since the Great Depression, it is reassuring that stewardship of our historic resources is state policy.

Publication date: September/October 1992




Author(s):William F. Delvac