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Thursday, June 27, 2013 11:23 am

Historic commissions are faltering

Neither Springfield nor Sangamon County is served as well as they might be by the two government bodies entrusted with preserving our historic heritage.

The Springfield Historic Sites Commission, founded in 1966, has a history of accomplishments. It has landmarked some 64 properties of historic and/or architectural significance and created a list of some 240 buildings, many pre-Civil War, that cannot be demolished until at least 60 days after a demolition application has been filed.

The all-volunteer commissioners also review proposed changes to individual landmarks, to buildings in zoned historic districts and to historic structures in a façade easement program. In addition, the group runs the Mayor’s Awards program for historic preservation, honoring homeowners and others who have contributed to preserving or enhancing older buildings. The commission also earned certification under federal preservation law that entitled it to win grants that financed surveys for historic buildings in three city neighborhoods.

However, the commission has been hampered in identifying and protecting more historic buildings by a somewhat lackadaisical attitude and by some factors beyond its control. One is an “owner consent” amendment to the historic sites ordinance that effectively vetoes landmark nominations. Another factor is wording in the ordinance that effectively precludes additions to the demolition delay list.

The text in another section of the ordinance contributed to the recent demolition of a landmarked building. Although the ordinance specifies the criteria to be used by a committee reviewing an application to demolish a landmark, the wording was ambiguous enough to allow the committee to permit the owner to destroy a city landmark without giving the full commission the opportunity to make this critical judgment. Preservationists lost a court case to reverse that action when the judge ruled that the plaintiffs did not have standing.

To correct these shortcomings in the ordinance, three measures are recommended: remove the “owner consent” provision, change the wording to allow demolition delay additions and have only the full commission – not a committee – decide on whether to approve or deny a demolition permit for a landmark.

Another recent destruction of a protected historic property, this one in a zoned historic district, occurred inexplicably without review by the commission, which the ordinance requires.

The Sangamon County Historic Preservation Commission was established in 2003 with the county’s first historic preservation ordinance. The commission’s regular jurisdiction is limited mostly to unincorporated areas of the county.

The county panel, too, has won “Certified Local Government” status under federal law, making the commission eligible for annual grants, among other benefits.

To identify potential landmarks, the commission chairman assigned each commissioner up to three townships to survey. In almost 10 years of operation, however, the commission has produced only four county landmarks and recorded only 29 surveyed sites. Of all 20 commissioners since 2003, only five have contributed completed survey forms. For these low returns, the county taxpayers over 10 years have paid more than $65,000 total in stipends to the commissioners.

To reverse this situation, it is recommended that to remain on the commission, commissioners must undertake survey work in the field and/or in the library or work to promote preservation via public relations or educational activity.

Both commissions have the framework, and the Springfield commission has the experience, to produce more effective historic preservation programs. Improvements like those recommended here, as well as others, could help achieve those goals.

Jerry Jacobson, a longtime historic preservation activist, heads Save Old Springfield.
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