Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Historical Commission Brings Ambitious Project Proposals to Town Meeting for 250th Anniversary




A local Historical Commission in Massachusetts (M.G.L. 40 § 8d) is charged with responsibility for "for the preservation, protection and development of the historical or archeological assets" of the city or town. Our duties include researching and identifying historic sites, establishing and maintaining inventories of same (available in the Planning Department and Jones Library Special Collections), producing maps and informational publications, holding demolition delay hearings, obtaining preservation restrictions, and coordinating "the activities of unofficial bodies organized for similar purposes."

According to M.G.L. 40 § 8d, "For the purpose of protecting and preserving such places, [a Historical Commission] may make such recommendations as it deems necessary to the city council or the selectmen . . . ." These include funding proposals as well as legislative measures. As Town Meeting members will know, there is no budget line for our work, so implementation of our projects largely depends largely on CPA funds (see below, end of entry).

Definitions: What is historic preservation--and why spend CPA funds on it?

Many people are surprised or irritated to learn that historic preservation is one of the legally mandated categories for CPA expenditures (the others are affordable housing and open space and recreation). It seems to them a luxury. By contrast, I myself have always been struck by the profound wisdom that the Commonwealth displayed in creating the CPA: It’s not about the life-or-death necessities that keep body and soul together. Towns will always find a way to fix the sewers and pay the police. It’s about the things that make life worth living. They are usually the first to go when budget crises force agonizing choices. The CPA is nothing less than a safety net for our quality of life. We need it now more than ever.

Public community resources, no less than public schools, are a foundation of democracy and diversity. The CPA supports crucial elements of the Master Plan. It preserves nature and culture for all: the forests and marshes, farmland and historic sites, which benefit residents and attract visitors. It provides recreational opportunities—parks, nature trails, playing fields—for all, young and old, homeowner and renter. It ensures access to housing for all, regardless of class and wealth.

The quality of life that keeps us here in turn attracts the clean economic development—in the form of cultural tourism and innovative new businesses—essential to funding the basic services to which we are so committed.

So, just what role does historic preservation play here?

Historic preservation embraces landscapes as well as buildings, whole neighborhoods as well as individual structures, the surroundings of the common people as well as the elite, the vernacular as well as the spectacular. It is about maintaining the physical connections to our heritage, and thereby our own identities: the sites, structures, objects, and aesthetics that have become important parts of our contemporary existence. It educates us about our past, it beautifies our present.

Fundamentally, it is also about a mature perspective on life. As Cicero said, to be ignorant of history is to remain always a child. By teaching us to live humbly and lightly, historic preservation is very much akin to environmentalism. Just as we would no longer countenance the destruction of a species, so too, we pause at the thought of wholesale destruction of types of landscapes or built environment. We realize that no single generation should be entitled to make such choices for all time. Tastes change. (The Renaissance scorned the “Gothic,” yet today we are glad that medieval buildings survive.) Historical preservation thus reminds us that we are but one link in a chain of generations. By showing respect for what came before us, we affirm both our humility and the hope that part of what we live and create will likewise become a part of the common human heritage.

The modern theory and practice of historic preservation are intimately linked to ideas of sustainability. Contrary to what one might expect, older buildings actually tend to be "greener" than recent ones. Renovation or adaptive reuse of older structures, by conserving resources and energy and preventing sprawl, makes the most economic and environmental sense. As the National Trust for Historic Preservation declares: historic preservation is green building. A sound historic preservation policy can thus support affordable housing and the preservation of open space.

Strategy and Program

In our work, we are guided by the the standards of historic preservation as defined by current scholarship and professional practice, the Department of the Interior and National Park Service, and the Massachusetts Historical Commission. Our specific projects emerge from the priorities set forth in the Amherst Preservation Plan (2005) and draft Master Plan, both funded by Town Meeting.

It has therefore been the policy of the Historical Commission to operate according to a comprehensive system of action steps and implementation priorities. It divides undertakings into physical preservation, documentation, regulation, and outreach and advocacy, which are further distributed over a ten-year schedule, divided into near-term, mid-term, and long-term goals.

As our last Report to the Town explains, the approaching fifth anniversary of the Preservation Plan was a welcome occasion for the sort of review and updating that the document mandates. Recognizing that, as a citizen committee operating with limited resources and staff support, we could not hope to accomplish the full range of action items on the original timetable, we undertook a a fundamental reappraisal and recalibration—the most radical overhauling of our agenda to date, and one that will shape our policy in the years to come. We eliminated or downgraded both overly ambitious and simply desirable rather than pressing measures.

The proposals that you see before you are the product of this refined prioritization and implementation strategy. In this, our 250th anniversary year, we propose a broad but assuredly feasible range of projects intended to highlight the full scope of Amherst's diverse historic heritage. They continue long-term existing initiatives and begin new ones. They include capital projects and inventories. They support preservation of public and private properties. They call attention to periods ranging from the Colonial to the contemporary, to our industrial as well as cultural heritage, to our famous and unsung citizens alike, to the full range of our social and ethnic profile.

Isn't that a lot of money?

Many citizens raise an eyebrow at the cost of some historic preservation projects. The fact is, good work takes time and costs good money. Botched preservation or restoration efforts are actually more expensive in all senses of the word: They damage or jeopardize the resources and often therefore necessitate repeat work, which entails greater costs in the long run.

When dealing with threatened resources, careful assessment and planning are of the essence, and even the preparation of bid specifications requires the input of specialists. Many projects require materials and techniques no longer in common use, which can be far more expensive than comparable contemporary methods. Even "ordinary" projects such as signs and plantings cost far more than most of us realize, as our examples will demonstrate.

Although our preservation projects are in round figures, all cost estimates are prepared on the basis of consultation with experts in the relevant areas. And, as with all CPA appropriations: in the event that a project costs less than anticipated, any surplus funds return to the pool for the next year.

Ultimately, of course, the issue is value rather than cost alone, and one gets what one pays for.

Michael Morissey summarizes:
Historic preservation is nothing short of the continuation and enhancement of everything important in modern society. It is growth in the local economy, it is a strong advocate for ecology, it is a living display of local or national history, it is proof of all residents' common heritage. It is, in a word, the ultimate in city planning.

• *) CPA Background:

The Community Preservation Act (2000) provides Massachusetts locales that adopt it with support for Open Space and Recreation, Historic Preservation, and Affordable Housing. Funds come from a progressive surcharge ranging from one to three percent, based on local property tax assessments but exempting the first $ 100,000 of assessed valuation. Participation has moreover traditionally earned communities state matching funds, derived from property transfers. Home committees, such as the Historical Commission, generate funding proposals, which are then reviewed by the local Community Preservation Act Committee (CPAC). Only proposals that pass both screenings are sent to Town Meeting in the form of a warrant article or articles for final approval (by a simple majority in the case of most proposals, by a two-thirds majority--aking to a zoning article--in cases where actual purchases of property are involved).

Initially, all communities could earn a 100-percent match. However, as the number of participating locales increased and property values decreased, the Commonwealth determined that, as of autumn 2008, only communities whose surcharge lay at the upper end of the scale would be eligible for matching funds. Amherst initially (2001) adopted the minimum one-percent rate, and cautiously increased the rate only to 1.5 percent in 2006. A measure on the November 2008 ballot proposed to increase our surcharge to the maximum three percent, in order to increase amounts available from local resources and to ensure that we continue to receive matching funds. (Many of our neighboring communities, including Northampton, Hadley, and Leverett, already have three-percent surcharges in place, so we have in effect been subsidizing their expenditures.) Although adopting the measure in Amherst would have meant an additional surcharge of only $ 55.87--or around 15 cents a day--for the average single-family house with an assessed value of $ 332,500, the measure was narrowly defeated. Resistance came from divergent sectors of the political spectrum. Many critics, including leading centrist advocates of fiscal responsibility, and the local newspaper editorial page, criticized the measure as the wrong action at the wrong time. Some did so on strategic grounds, reasoning that taxpayers, unable to fathom the subtleties of the aforementioned financial calculation, might revolt against even so modest a measure bearing the name, "tax," or "surcharge," which would thus jeopardize prospects for a general tax override deemed necessary in order to meet the looming budget crisis. In the event, there was no move for an override. In the meantime, Boston informs us that the state match this year will be only 29 percent.

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