Pros and cons of National Register of Historic Places designation?
May 27, 2014 2:24 PM   Subscribe

I'm working with a small-town historical preservation group to get a grant to preserve and display their old, now defunct, USFS Ranger Station cabin. I'm primarily burying my nose in archives and old newspapers to do the historical research, but the group is curious about whether or not they should also apply to be listed by the NRHP, and I agreed to help them out. Any pertinent anecdotal experiences or anything you could share about your own knowledge of the NRHP? Any advice or strong opinions on the matter?

I've already set up a meeting with someone on the Town Planning board of a larger city, she's agreed to detail her own experiences and impressions. I've also spent a lot of time perusing the NRHP website trying to pin down what exactly designation can do for a place.

I have also read the Wikipedia article a few times.

It seems to me that listing with the National Register could sorta kinda help the building not be demolished, and could make it eligible for tax credits, like how joining the National Honor Society could make you more eligible for jobs or scholarships, but doesn't actually do anything in particular.

My questions for ya'll: Whats the quick and dirty and the cut and dry of applying to list a building with the National Register? Also, is there different/other/better lists and registers I should look into as alternatives?

BONUS POINTS: The wikipedia article, 3rd paragraph down says "The application of those criteria has been the subject of criticism by academics of history and preservation, as well as the public and politicians," but doesn't have a citation. Any thoughts, mefites?
posted by Grandysaur to Law & Government (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Not good or bad, but find out the true costs and dues of such along with the values. Will the marketing that the designation brings outweigh the (not just dollar) costs of the listing?

Additional reading on both sides:
-This list from a preservationist is interesting reading, some of which you may already know as you referenced above re: could/do.
-The actual limits, which further explain the federal monies pieces, which is poorly outlined on the official site.
-A good overview of local vs. national listing.

I've done a fair bit of research into preservation, so feel free to email me if you need more information.
posted by TravellingCari at 2:49 PM on May 27, 2014

It seems to me that listing with the National Register could sorta kinda help the building not be demolished, and could make it eligible for tax credits, like how joining the National Honor Society could make you more eligible for jobs or scholarships, but doesn't actually do anything in particular.

In my area (California, basically - all knowledge I drop in this comment is based on California stuff), registered historic buildings or properties (registered at any level) can get tax breaks based on the Mills Act (San Diego area specific link). The general intent is that the reduction in the tax helps offset the cost of keeping up the property, and that it's in whatever government entity's interest to preserve their historic building fabric. Based on your profile, I'm guessing this building is in Montana, and I don't know if similar legislation exists there.

From what I've seen, protecting properties from demolition is mostly handled at a local level. It's very difficult in San Diego to alter any publicly visible aspect of a registered building, and even buildings that aren't registered have to go through a review for potential historicity if they're older than 45 years. Nonetheless, some owners of registered properties would prefer to build something else on their lot, and allow the buildings to be "demolished by neglect".

In addition to that stuff, in California, historic structures get some additional leniency as far as code upgrades for disabled accessibility, fire ratings, and exiting requirements if any alterations to the buildings need to go through the building permit process. For instance, the only way you can build any kind of fire escape or use one for exiting in California right now is if the building is historic.
posted by LionIndex at 2:56 PM on May 27, 2014

Best answer: In my experience with writing NR nominations in grad school and working closely with properties that had one, the best you can hope for are some grants or tax credits. If it's a federally owned property, being on the Register makes the agency evaluate the property before significant changes are done.

The one property I wrote a nomination for got accepted, but as far as I know they haven't gotten any funding or any extra help as a result.

Also, you definitely want help writing this thing. Either contact your SHPO (State Historic Preservation Office) or find a university nearby that has a Historic Preservation degree program. They have to meet a very specific criteria to be accepted and professionals can evaluate your site quickly and let you know if it would even make the cut.

It looks like from your profile you're in Montana. I've got a former professor who's got contacts in your area and if no help arises from your SHPO, memail me and I'll get you his information.
posted by teleri025 at 2:59 PM on May 27, 2014

Best answer: Historic preservation professional here, although I work for a city, handling local designations, which are a different ball of wax than the state and national registers. So I don't have a working knowledge of the national register, but I do know a bit.

First of all, it sounds like you've been reaching out to professionals within the field, which is a good move. If the town planning professional you're meeting with doesn't have specific experience with the National Register, ask her for recommendations for people you can talk to who do. Definitely contact your SHPO (State Historic Preservation Office) and talk to them. Are there statewide or regional preservation organizations in your state and area? Contact them. Definitely talk to someone at the National Trust for Historic Preservation (this is what they exist for) or at the very least, take a close look at their website. Historic Preservation is a pretty small world, and the people who are in it, are in it not for the dough (of which there ain't much), but because they believe in it. So they tend to help out people who, like you, are fighting the good fight.

Regarding the National Register: it depends on who the owner is. If you're a private owner of an NR-listed property, the NR is all carrot and no stick. Nothing prevents you from tearing your own building down, but many states provide tax credits for rehabilitation, provided the work is historically appropriate. For example, if you want to replace your windows, you will not get the tax credit for putting in historically incompatible cheapo vinyl windows. You will get the tax credit for restoring the historic sashes, or replacing them with new windows that match the original or historic sashes in all the important ways. Again, these credits vary by state.

Of course, there's also the recognition factor, which shouldn't be underestimated. If you're fighting to keep a historic building from being demolished, you're going to be much more effective defending a National Register-listed building. People think very highly of the Register (it is federal recognition of a building's significance, after all), and tend to get much more riled up at the prospect of an NR-listed building being demolished.

Now, if a non-profit or the government owns the building, the tax credits don't matter. But the NR is most effective when an NR-listed property is impacted by a proposed government action. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act requires a review process for federal or federally funded actions, or actions requiring federal permits, impacting NR-listed or NR-eligible properties. So, if the government proposes building a new highway through your NR-listed ranger station, it's gotta go through Section 106. This doesn't always save historic properties, but it's a big help.

I'm running off at the mouth here, so, long story short: yes, get it listed on the National Register. You have nothing to lose and possibly quite a bit to gain. I'm not promising that it will preserve this building forever, but it can help.
posted by Leatherstocking at 4:35 PM on May 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Regarding your last question about the criteria, I don't know where Wikipedia is getting this from. Of course, there is always going to be some ignorant, half-literate politician yelling about pointy-headed bureaucrats putting crummy old factories, or diners, or sewage treatment plants, or parking garages, or Native American burial grounds, or whatever on the National Register, but I've never heard any complaints from people in the field. The people who work with the criteria day-to-day accept them for what they are, and know how to work with them. The criteria are meant to by pretty flexible, and preservation professionals usually don't have a hard time tailoring their arguments for significance to the criteria. You shouldn't have much trouble with a historic ranger station, assuming it's reasonably well-preserved.

A recommendation: try to get your hands on some completed National Register reports to see how they're written. New York State has all of its online (through the Online Tools section of the State Historic Preservation Office), but that doesn't seem to be working now. If you can't find any online, ask your SHPO in Montana to email you a few they've accepted, so you can get a sense of how it's done.
posted by Leatherstocking at 4:59 PM on May 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

One issue to consider is what the local impact might be of listing the property on the NRHP. For instance, some city codes don't care if a building is on the NRHP, while other cities might impose strict constraints on any changes proposed to an NRHP-listed building.

So you might want to check what your state and local codes say about the issue before making a decision.
posted by suelac at 6:21 PM on May 27, 2014

Who currently owns the property?
posted by humboldt32 at 9:14 AM on May 28, 2014

My dad was responsible for getting a fair number of properties (individual, district, and thematic grouping) on the NRHP.

The Register is important for getting tax credits and grants, and can open up private funding sources as well. It is almost useless by itself at protecting a structure, as Congress did not want to set up a federal protection that would interfere with local property authority.

If the structure is still publicly owned it can have an impact, but this will mostly depend on the authority that owns it and probably state law given the rural location.

I would strongly suggest that you engage an architectural historian to write the NRHP nomination. This could be a grad student or someone with prior experience. There are ways they need to be written to conform to federal law and they need to get past a state committee at the very least to be considered. This is probably an expense of $1-2K these days.

The NR designation can help with the image of a rehab/restore proposal when dealing with funding sources, whether public or private. The designation is almost entirely useless at generating tourist interest, I'm afraid, but it is nice to show up on internet searches.

I wouldn't worry too much about the Wikipedia statement. It's a pretty standard tendentious "some say" boilerplate and technically should not be there without a cited source. It doesn't really affect your application process, though, simply because some people object to the concept. In lots of places you do get people who get angry about any kind of historical designation as a "taking"; in my Midwestern town, when the Historic Commission proposed strengthening protections for the downtown by creating an overlay (landmark protection, basically) district, one downtown property owner abruptly razed a perfectly good building so as not to be hampered by any historic preservation requirements, and the Commission, tragically, backed down and remains largely toothless. You might encounter that sort of thing, but here at least it sounds like it's public property and funding might be the only thing that people object to.
posted by dhartung at 3:25 PM on May 28, 2014

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