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More often than not, protecting the places that matter in our cities and towns starts with local preservation ordinances. While they vary from place to place (after all, the best ordinance is one that is tailor made to meet the unique needs of a community), these land-use laws set forth rules and regulations for the designation of - and any subsequent alterations to - a community's historic properties.

But what happens when these effective lines of defense become threatened just like the irreplaceable resources they are designed to preserve?

Unfortunately, this is a question that is currently front and center for preservationists in Montgomery County, Maryland, where an entire local preservation program is under intense scrutiny following the introduction of amendments that would significantly alter an ordinance with proven effectiveness.

Announced last February, these amendments would establish an elevated threshold for designation should a property owner object to a nomination, effectively preventing the designation of new resources and potentially cracking the door for future efforts to de-designate already protected properties. They would also delegate final decision-making authority to the county’s Planning Board, which would enable it to disregard the informed recommendations of the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission.

Last night, a well-attended public hearing was held before the Montgomery County Council, and as you can imagine, some extremely lively debate ensued. During the meeting, concerned citizens and national, state and local organizations – including the Maryland Historical Trust, Preservation Maryland, Inc., Montgomery Preservation, Inc., and the National Trust for Historic Preservation – rallied together in a strong showing of opposition to the proposed amendments. While all agreed that the current law could be improved, many questioned the legality and wisdom behind the proposed legislation.

More specifically, the legal staff of the National Trust for Historic Preservation prepared a memorandum in advance of the hearing that questions the county’s authority to adopt the proposed amendments under state law. At the hearing itself, Robert Nieweg, director and regional attorney of our Southern Field Office, delivered the following testimony:

The National Trust for Historic Preservation does not support the proposed amendments to Montgomery County’s historic preservation ordinance.

We respectfully encourage the County Council to table the proposed amendment and, instead, consider initiating a comprehensive examination of the county’s historic preservation program.

The National Trust believes that the amendment under consideration by the County Council would fundamentally alter the preservation program in ways which raise serious legal and public policy issues.

First, the proposed amendment would change key elements of the county’s current designation structure in a manner that would, to a large degree, leave final historic designation authority in the hands of the Planning Board, rather than the Council itself.

In fact, the proposed amendments would enable the Planning Board to disregard recommendations by the Historic Preservation Commission for reasons unrelated to the merits of the property.

Such a delegation of authority raises serious legal concerns.

- The proposed amendment would preclude County Council review of a Planning Board decision to deny historic designation. This change appears to conflict with the requirement of the Regional District Act that master plan amendments be made at the direction of the Council, rather than the Planning Board.

- The proposed transfer to the Planning Board of final decision-making authority for certain designation decisions would effectively delegate the Council’s authority to an administrative body that does not have detailed subject-matter expertise in historic preservation. This delegation of authority would be vulnerable to legal challenge.

Second, the proposed amendment would introduce special standards and procedures whenever a property owner declines to consent to designation.

- The Regional District Act requires that the criteria for designation of historic properties be “not inconsistent” with the criteria used by the Maryland Historic Trust to identify properties for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. These criteria focus specifically on the merits and significance of the property and do not consider the personal views of the property owner.

- The proposed requirement for a supermajority vote of the Planning Board in the absence of owner consent appears to conflict with the Regional District Act, which states that the Historic Preservation Master Plan is to be amended by three affirmative votes of the Planning Board.

- Adoption of the proposed owner-consent provision would jeopardize Montgomery County’s eligibility for Maryland state preservation funds, which the county has used to help support a wide range of projects such as research, community planning, training and public education.

Given the serious concerns raised by the proposed amendment before you tonight, the National Trust respectfully recommends that the County Council should initiate a comprehensive review of the county’s historic preservation program to fully explore the program’s challenges and a range of solutions with the goal of enhancing and strengthening the highly regarded program.

Thank you for considering the views of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

At the close of the hearing, the County Council announced that the record on the proposed amendment will remain open until May 22, at which time it would be taken up by the Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee. Information on the bill and contact information for submitting written testimony is available on the Council’s website.

Please stay tuned to PreservationNation.org as we continue to monitor this situation.

- Julia Miller

Julia Miller serves as special counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.

Fires on Montana Main Streets

Posted on: April 1st, 2009 by Guest Writer 1 Comment

 

Bozeman, Montana (Credit: Michael Becker)

On Thursday, March 5, a massive natural gas explosion rocked the 200 block of East Main Street, in the heart of Bozeman’s historic district. The blast completely destroyed five buildings, and most tragically, one woman was killed. Windows were blown out of buildings in the surrounding blocks, and only the intense and efficient work of the first responders kept the fire from spreading to adjacent properties.

Whitehall, Montana (Credit : Justin Post)

The next day, another devastating fire ripped through four Main Street businesses in the small town of Whitehall, sixty miles west of Bozeman. Fortunately, no one was injured, but the brick and wood-frame buildings were gutted. Only the masonry exterior walls remain standing, which hopefully can be saved.

As these two communities rallied and began to clean up from the devastation, a third fire erupted. On Monday March 23, a fire began in the basement of a historic building undergoing rehabilitation in the 700 block of Main Street in Miles City. The fire rushed through the walls and to the roof, where high winds fanned the flames. Soon the adjacent buildings were aflame, and in the end, nine businesses, nearly the entire block, were destroyed. Happily, like in Whitehall, no one was injured.

Miles City, Montana (Credit : Kathy Doeden)

Now that the smoke has cleared, each of these towns faces the daunting task of recovery. A dialogue between those connected to the properties continues. Many of the owners are committed to rebuilding, and sensitivity to the historic architecture along each of these Main Streets is at the forefront of these discussions. Fortunately, Bozeman and Miles City have active local preservation programs.

The National Trust and Montana Preservation Alliance have been in close conversation with city officials, Chambers of Commerce, life safety officers, structural engineers, architects, insurance companies, and property owners to offer assistance and to help craft a plan for recovery in each of these towns. As the Partners in the Field representative, I will remain actively engaged with each community to aid with stabilization and planning efforts and will continue to offer technical and, where possible, financial support.

-Kate Hampton, Most Endangered Places Program Director, Montana Preservation Alliance

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.

 

Watch it live!

Visit www.whitehouse.gov/live to watch a live stream of President Obama as he signs the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009 into law.

Last Wednesday, a piece of legislation - which President Obama will sign into law in approximately one hour - was enacted called the Public Lands Management Act.

Why should you care? Clocking in at 1,300 pages and over 160 provisions, this is the largest conservation measure passed in over a decade, and it will protect innumerable areas that are rich in cultural and historic resources. Among those provisions is the National Landscape Conservation System Act. Introduced two and a half years ago, this bill congressionally establishes the Bureau of Land Management’s conservation system, which is comprised of 26 million acres of land in 14 states. It’s at these special places where one can truly experience the wild beauty of the American West.

In general, a lands bill of this size and scope takes about six years to pass through the ever-complicated process known as the United States Congress. To say we were ecstatic to get this one done in two and a half is the understatement of the century.

Now, unless you are a huge fan of the game of ping pong, the process to get something like this done may not be your cup of tea. The National Landscape Conservation System Act had a relatively typical start, with hearings and mark-ups in the appropriate committees of both chambers of Congress. It passed a stand-alone vote on the House side (see below for some fun tid bits about that adventure), and enjoyed wide support in the Senate. Then, it was packaged along with 159 other bills, and the game of ping pong (or hot potato, depending on how you look at it) officially began.

The legislation bounced back and forth between the House and the Senate at least six times. After a few rounds of this, my colleagues and I started feeling like Charlie Brown lining up to kick the football that Lucy would inevitably pull away. (How’s that for imagery?) However, with community support and the incredible leadership of our congressional champions, we made it through and got the field goal after all.

Looking back over the past three years, I will remember a lot about this campaign, but for now, here’s my top-five list:

5) The very start of the whole process when I was trying to convince colleagues that referring to the system as the “NLCS” was not going to help matters. See, I generally hate acronyms and I am not the biggest fan of baseball. However, if people insisted on wanting to discuss the National League Championship Series, I had to go with it, complete with a one-page fact sheet that was available upon request.

4) Working with National Trust for Historic Preservation President Richard Moe, a true mentor to me and a stalwart leader on this issue. Sitting behind him twice as he testified before both the House and the Senate committees was an amazing thing to witness.

3) Getting a stand-alone vote in the House of Representatives and then getting a terrible rule that allowed for six amendments to the bill, meaning seven votes for our team in one day. These amendments ranged from never funding anything that had to do with the System to exempting the entire state of Utah from it.

2) The real fun happened on a vote called a motion to recommit, which is generally the last chance the opposition has to kill a bill. In our case, it was on the right to bear arms in the System - a right that already exists, but a vote that can quickly divide Congress. After “lobbying off the floor” with our incredible team (this basically involves stakeouts to approach members on their way to vote), there was nothing left to do but head over to the Hawk and Dove (a Capitol Hill bar/institution) to watch the final vote come in. We won that day by only four votes, but the excitement and camaraderie was worth it.

1) Of course, the best memory of all is the final passage. After again “lobbying off the floor,” we were invited to House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn’s office in the Capitol. There, with all 30 of my colleagues assembled in an anteroom, we watched as the final passage vote succeed 285-140.

So, here we are with America’s newest conservation system, formally established with the force of law and the recognition of Congress. With this under our belt, we must now focus on ensuring that it is well managed, well funded and inclusive of the places rich in cultural and historic resources.

Let the games begin.

- Chris Soderstrom

Chris Soderstrom is a senior policy advisor at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This afternoon at 3:00 PM EST, she'll be at the White House to watch President Obama sign the Public Lands Management Act of 2009 into law. Join her by catching a live stream at www.whitehouse.gov/live. Also, stay tuned as we post our own pictures from the signing ceremony.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.

The Power of Women Volunteers

Posted on: March 30th, 2009 by Guest Writer

 

A Place

A Place that Matters: The D.C. Headquarters of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs

My first job in D.C. was in a big corporate office on the twelfth floor of a building in Dupont Circle.

It was exactly what one would expect when coming to work in the big city. What one rarely expects, though, is that a few years - and a few job moves - later, one returns to the same neighborhood where that first job was located to work in a bona fide piece of history. That's right; every day I come to work in a building with a grand staircase and murals brought from Paris in the 1850s. I also walk right past a lace bonnet that was worn by Lucretia Mott. (Yes, that Lucretia Mott…abolitionist, social reformer and proponent of women’s rights!)

This overwhelming sense of history and the energy it creates are exactly what the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC) is about. Since the Federation was formed in 1890, so much has happened that it’s hard to believe more people don’t know (and love) this organization.

GFWC was the brainchild of Jane Cunningham Croly, a pioneering journalist who thought women and their ideas were worth something substantial. Since its founding, the organization has had a very serious focus on philanthropy, social and political advocacy, and community leadership. This focus has paid off throughout GFWC’s history; accomplishments during its first century include establishing 75% of the country's public libraries, developing kindergartens in public schools, and working for food and drug regulation.

During its second century, the Federation has pledged to maintain its commitment to working for a better world. With "Unity in Diversity" as our motto and a strong umbrella of programs that clubs can adapt to suit the needs of their communities, GFWC encourages the flexibility that has enabled it to expand its reach in a rapidly-changing society. GFWC programs and projects focus on the major issues of our time - supporting women’s health, preserving natural resources, promoting literacy and equality, and encouraging volunteer service. Our programs are structured to enable member clubs to harness the vast resources of our international membership to address the emerging needs of their individual communities.

One of the most enduring issues for GFWC has been conservation, both of natural resources and of historic buildings, objects and art. From the very beginning, the work of the Federation has been recorded and preserved in a formal archive that dates back to 1889 and tracks the chronological development of the organization. This archive - the Women’s History and Resource Center - is housed within GFWC’s most important piece of history: 1734 N Street NW, our headquarters and a National Historic Landmark.

Our new partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation fits in perfectly with our conservation program, and we have been working on sending volunteers for the National Trust’s Rebuilding Together New Orleans project, as well as spreading the word about the This Place Matters campaign.

GFWC's headquarters matters to the more than 100,000 members of the Federation who take special pride in donating art and artifacts to be a part of our collection. The building is an important part of local architectural history, and the activities recorded in GFWC’s archives are important to the national history of women and women volunteers.

Yes, this place mattes, and our clubwomen, friends and supporters are committed to protecting and preserving it.

- Nikki Willoughby

Nikki Willoughby is the senior director of public affairs at the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.

California Parks Supporters Take to the Capital

Posted on: March 27th, 2009 by Guest Writer

 

Chuck Quinn with the California Council of Land Trusts at the Rally

On Monday more than 160 parks advocates gathered at the California State Capital for State Parks Advocacy Day 2009. Spearheaded by the California State Parks Foundation (CSPF) 33 teams from around the state met with nearly 120 Assembly members, State Senators, and their staffs. The advocates discussed the importance of proposed park protection measures, economic stimulus for parks, and the grave impact of the state bond freeze on park projects.

Last year’s proposal by Governor Schwarzenegger to close 48 of the state's 279 parks gave the coalition momentum that has clearly coalesced into a formidable parks movement in California. The threat of these closures compelled the National Trust for Historic Preservation to list the California State Parks System among America's 11 Most Endangered Places in 2008.  Fortunately, the Governor took note of the over 30,000 handwritten letters opposing the proposed parks closures, and his revised budget last spring restored nearly all the previously proposed cuts. All the parks remain open and visitation broke records in December, January, and February. Annually 76 million people visit California State Parks.

Elizabeth Goldstein, Executive Director of the California State Parks Foundation (and former NTHP Western Office Director) Leads a Rally on the Capital Steps

Brian Turner and Anthony Veerkamp from the National Trust Western Office attended five meetings on Monday and particularly emphasized the importance of the park’s system to preserving California’s history. The State Parks system contains more than 3,100 historic buildings. Many of these buildings are in dire need of basic maintenance and repair.

The economic climate, of course, has not been helpful. Funding for the Department of Parks and Recreation is partly dependant on bonds approved by voter initiative. Last December the State’s Pooled Money Investment Board voted to freeze all state bond spending, which immediately stopped 5,400 projects across the state, 1,200 of which are State Parks related.

The effect of the spending freeze has hit non-profit parks friends groups hard. Many have existing obligations to contractors for conservation and preservation-related projects that were expected to be funded by State bond sales. These groups are stuck footing the bill for the contracted work with no financial guarantees from the State. State Parks Advocacy Day activists pushed their legislators to support Assembly Bill 1364 which will allow state agencies to adjust timelines and grant deliverables for these projects.

Rick Arendt and Patrick Garcia Wear the Message

The day ended on a hopeful note from State Treasurer Bill Lockyer at the closing reception. Lockyer is the former Attorney General in California and was recognized by CSPF for his critical role representing the People of California against the proponents of a proposed toll road which would have cut through the San Onofre State Beach (the project was successfully stopped last fall). He told the crowd that while advocates were busy at the Capital on Monday, the State sold $3 billion in general obligation bonds. On Tuesday, the total reached $6.54 billion, much more than originally expected.  The numbers signal an increasing confidence in the State’s economic recovery and hope for the future of the State Park system.

-Brian Turner

Brian Turner is Law Fellow in the Western Regional Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.