Archive for January, 2014

Historic Resource Impact Studies Part 2

Part one of our blog about Historic Resource Impact Studies described what they are. Part two discusses what the applicant and the municipality should expect. Expectations can differ greatly. The preparer, who is usually retained by the applicant but must abide by the provisions of the ordinance, can be caught in the middle, sometimes with his or her professional reputation on the line.


Applicant Expectations: Most applicants (usually a developer) would prefer not to produce an impact study. It is one more thing they must to do in the land development process, and it can be “expensive” (actually the Impact Study cost is miniscule compared to legal and engineering costs, not to mention construction itself). Most developers would like you to draft the report and simply agree with them. The fact is that what they would like to do sometimes runs contrary to a municipality’s efforts and legal framework to preserve its historic resources.


Recommendation: Start early. Often developers bring in the preservation planner at the last moment, after tens of thousands of dollars of engineering and legal fees have already been spent. This can sometimes negate reasonable options of addressing the property’s historic resources. Sometimes the plans are “set in granite” and the developer does not want to hear about alternatives, which may require extensive (and costly) rework of the plans. Had the applicant retained the preservation consultant early in the process, thereby allowing the consultant to bring ideas to the table early on, drafting the Impact Study could have been much easier.


Here’s why: Let’s say the applicant wishes to demolish a historic building. He draws up plans and presents them to the local planning commission. The commission will make comments and may sign-off on the plan. At that point the applicant, thinking all is well, hires the preservation consultant to draft the Impact Study. The consultant may dislike the plan (particularly the demolition) and knows the historical commission will probably not recommend it.


Now we have a problem. Whereas a land use lawyer will fight for his client’s legal rights regardless of the plan (within reason, I assume), the consultant must look at design alternatives which could save the resource. Not only may the applicant not want to consider these alternatives, but may not want them included in the Impact Study.


I tell applicants: don’t expect Wise Preservation to be a “yes man”. Historical Commissions see right through that and not only will they not accept the Impact Study, but it will put “egg on the face” of both applicant and consultant. We recently witnessed a historical commission publicly chide a well-known consultant for losing his objectivity. Maintaining our professional reputation is very important for us, since historical commissions often recommend us when an applicant is looking for a consultant. Commission members should expect a fair and reasonable evaluation of the proposed plan. They are usually savvy individuals that have seen many examples of the impacts – good and bad – of development projects on historic resources. They will know if the consultant is just trying to “sell” the project for the applicant. Applicants should expect a critical and thorough analysis.


Historical Commissions need to understand that improperly drafted Impact Studies may leave many recommendations “off the table” or undervalue the resource in question. Read the study carefully, evaluate whether the resource is “significant” based on its history and architecture. Was the consultant unaware of important information? Minimizing the resource’s significance will “cheapen” the product… and an experienced Historical Commission will know and may even reject it. Are the recommendations complete and detailed? As I have told several historical commissions who may think I am biased because I am getting paid by the applicant: Unlike the developer’s architects, engineers, landscape architects, and lawyers who have a long-term vested interest (ongoing billable time) in the project, my job is complete after we make our presentation. As a preservation planner, obviously I hope my recommendations are accepted by both applicant and historical commission and I hope the historic resource is not adversely impacted.


Within reason, it is better for the applicant to openly address each recommendation. Historical Commissions should always be prepared to ask additional questions not be afraid to make additional recommendations beyond the Impact Study. I have heard many fine and creative recommendations from commission members that we, quite frankly, did not think of.  Commissions should be prepared to ask specific questions and make specific requests. For example, if the consultant recommends vegetation to buffer a historic resource from new development, the commission should ask specifically what kind of vegetation, its appearance, size (now and full-grown) and whether it’s indigenous, etc. The applicant should be prepared to provide this information. If everyone is in agreement, the municipality obviously must make sure it gets on the plan and ultimately is part of the landscape construction.


The bottom line: Both applicants and Historical Commissions should expect a professionally researched, written and presented report that fully addresses all provisions of the Historic Resource Impact Study ordinance. The report should fully analyze the significance of the resources and the potential impact of the proposed project on those resources. Its methodology should be clearly spelled out. The applicant should be expected to “defend” against unfavorable recommendations and – where possible – accept recommendations that are favorable to the resource. The consultant should not feel “pressured” by the applicant to suggest something against his or her professional judgment (let the applicant do that), but should understand the limitations of the site, zoning, neighbors, etc. Finally, back to the historical commission, don’t just take what is written, no matter how well researched or presented. Critically analyze it. Look for “opportunities” that may have been missed. And ask questions. Many questions!

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