Posted by: wadahp | March 8, 2010

OPINION PIECE ON "ARRA" FUNDING AND SHPO OFFICES…

Although focused on California’s State Historic Preservation Office, the sentiments below can safely describe SHPO offices across the country, including Washington. 
 
Opinion: California’s State Preservation Office is Protection, Not a Logjam  

By Richard Moe 

 Special to the San Jose Mercury News 

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) is sending $787 billion in economic stimulus funds to the states, with California expected to receive more than $85 billion. California’s Office of Historic Preservation has been taking some flak lately: Inspector General Laura Chick has said that delays in the office have created a major logjam in the review of Act-funded projects, preventing California’s stimulus funds from being spent in a timely fashion. In response, the governor has ordered that the problem be resolved speedily. 

This situation is reminiscent of the mid-1960s, when lots of federal money was funneled to the states to revitalize communities and stimulate the economy by creating public-works jobs. The painful lessons we learned then are applicable now. 

In the 1960s, well-intentioned urban renewal programs and major transportation projects destroyed thousands of historic buildings and devastated many of the communities the programs were designed to help. 

There was little consideration of alternatives or input from the public. 

Things got so bad that Congress stepped in and, in 1966, adopted a key piece of legislation called the National Historic Preservation Act. 

Among its important provisions is Section 106, which requires that federal agencies take into account the effects of their undertakings on properties listed in, or eligible for listing in, the National Register of Historic Places.  The law benefits all of us by helping ensure that federal dollars don’t support the needless destruction of places that matter. 

Overseeing the Section 106 review process, making sure that it runs smoothly and meets the intent of the federal law, is one of the responsibilities of the state historic preservation office in each state. 

Everyone can agree that delays are frustrating and that creating jobs is a priority. But pitting the promise of job creation against effective, long-standing environmental and preservation protections is not the way to go. Rushing to spend stimulus dollars by fast-tracking project review does not justify putting our heritage at risk. 

California’s horrendous budget crisis has forced the governor to impose across-the-board staff cuts, furloughs and hiring freezes. This reduction in staff means a reduction in capacity at the preservation office, even as stimulus-related projects have increased the office’s work load by over 200 percent. To make a tough situation even more challenging, the federal money has spurred lots of new projects (just as it was intended to do), forcing the preservation office to do a great deal of basic hand-holding with applicants for stimulus funding who are submitting projects prematurely and not following the Section 106 process. 

Since Congress didn’t see fit to provide funding to allow state historic preservation offices to ramp up to meet the increased demand, it’s not surprising that there is a backlog of projects awaiting review. 

Preservation offices in California and other states are in a real bind: They’re required to follow a federally mandated procedure to ensure that historic properties are protected, but they’re being pressured to fast-track project reviews so that stimulus funds can be spent quickly. It isn’t the review process that has created a logjam; it’s the lack of adequate resources to keep pace with a vastly expanded workload. Blaming the preservation office for its backlog is like tying a runner’s feet together and then criticizing him for falling down. 

Reviewing federal projects for their potential to harm our heritage may be perceived as a bureaucratic nuisance, but as we learned in the 1960s, saving places that matter and spending funding wisely is surely worth a little extra time and thought. Working in partnership to ensure strong, sustainable communities should be our shared goal. 

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