Historic preservation: Who's to decide?
"It's old, but it will never go historical," I was told by the fourth-generation owner of a 19th-century St. Mary's County tobacco farm during a historical survey in 2004.
As a professional historian, working in historic preservation for 25 years, I have had to grapple with evaluating the historical significance of a range of things from Colonial farmhouses to Cold War microwave relay systems and entire towns and regions. One of the most difficult tasks in historic preservation is defensibly distinguishing bet-ween something that is significant and something that is not.
County Councilman Michael J. Knapp has introduced legislation to amend Montgomery County's 30-year-old historic preservation law ("Changes proposed to county's historic preservation law," March 4 article). Responding to some of his upcounty constituents, Knapp (D-Dist 2) of Germantown proposes to realign the law to purportedly allow for more owner involvement and consent in the designation process and to build in additional review layers for the Planning Board to ensure that only the most historic properties ever reach the council for a vote to designate a property as historic.
Montgomery County's historic preservation law defines the legal standards for what may be determined historic, the process by which a property is designated, and the regulatory framework for ensuring the protection of designated properties. The 1978 law created the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) and paved the way for staffing units in the Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission that document and ensure the protection of the county's archaeological, architectural and cultural landscapes that make the county unique.
County law establishes two basic categories of historical significance: historical and cultural significance, and architectural and design significance.
The county's inventory of historic properties is known as the Master Plan for Historic Preserva-tion. To be listed in the master plan (or in an intermediate classification known as the Locational Atlas and Index of Historic Sites), an individual property or a district of related properties must be evaluated against the county's criteria. Anyone — a property owner or a third party — can nominate a property to be designated.
Each application is rigorously reviewed by planning department staff and is evaluated in HPC public hearings. The HPC is a nine-member volunteer board appointed by the county executive. It has experts in architecture, history and archaeology, as well as community representatives, and it conforms to state and national standards as a certified local government. This certification enables the county to receive state and federal funds.
I have served on the HPC since 2004 and I can say unequivocally that its decisions to recommend designation are not simply rubber stamps for historic preservation advocates run amok. While we have recommended designations that have been controversial, including the Comsat laboratory near Clarksburg, we also have declined designation proposals submitted by local preservation groups by applying the criteria outlined in the law.
Like every law, the county's historic preservation ordinance could use some improvements to make the process more efficient and consistent. Decisions about historical significance need to remain in the HPC and should not rest with the Planning Board as the Knapp amendment proposes. Nor should the county cede its legislated authority to designate properties to individual property owners with a vested interest in preventing designation. By requiring a supermajority Planning Board vote to designate and requiring each contested designation meet at least three of the nine designation criteria, the Knapp amendment would strip the law of standards found to be legal, fair and successful in communities around the nation. The Knapp amendment would obviate the need for expertise on the HPC and it would make the designation process redundant and even more confusing for the general public.
I welcome Councilman Knapp's overtures to improve the county's historic preservation law, but let's do it in a measured dialogue that benefits the entire county and that ensures that Montgomery County continues to grow and prosper without losing sight of its past.
David S. Rotenstein, Ph.D., of Silver Spring, is vice chairman of the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission.