Issues and Opportunities
West Virginia’s preservation commun-ity faces some daunting challenges. With creative thinking and careful planning, however, opportunities and solutions can be found to overcome most obstacles. Many issues, including the need for better marketing, continuation of survey efforts, proper preservation of archival records, and coordination with other agencies, were discussed during public meetings and de-scribed on questionnaires. What follows is a discussion of some of the more complicated challenges.
Education continues to be a pressing issue for historic preservation in West Virginia. During the 1998 SHPO-sponsored planning workshop, creating an education program was listed as the number one pri-ority for preservationists over the next few years. Similar sentiments were voiced in questionnaire responses and during public meetings. In general, constituents feel that public officials need to be better informed about the importance of historic resources and how historic resources can be benefi-cial to the character and economy of a town or community. There are many common misconceptions about preservation and the National Register that the office should work toward repudiating, such as the idea that historic preservation deters or halts development and that historic preservation is hard on the poor and limits a landowner’s options.
Constituents feel their children are not being adequately educated regarding their heritage. Although West Virginia history is taught in the fourth and eighth grades, attempts are rarely made to tie history to the surrounding built environment or to the importance of preservation. People also feel that West Virginia’s role in the indus-trial development of our nation is not emphasized. The importance of the coal industry and the resulting labor disputes are not given adequate attention. In addi-tion, many are concerned about the lack of educational opportunities at the college level. While Shepherd College recently instituted a bachelor’s program in historic preservation, no college or university in West Virginia offers a degree in anthropo-logy, archaeology, or a graduate degree in a preservation-related field. As a result, students interested in preservation must leave the state in order to pursue their education. In addition, the lack of educatio-nal opportunities often results in importing non-West Virginians to fill preservation-related jobs in state government as well as in the private sector.
Although previous educational efforts by SHPO staff were appreciated by mem-bers of the preservation community, our constituents feel that we need to reach a wider audience. For example, local groups need help educating realtors and those in the construction business about the econo-mic benefits of preserving older buildings and in finding realistic ways to adapt them for new uses. County commissions and boards of education also need to learn about the benefits of reuse so that neighborhood schools can remain viable centers of com-munities. Workshops and technical informa-tion geared toward groups such as these should help them understand how properly preserved neighborhoods and downtown areas improves a municipality’s character and quality of life.
West Virginia’s Economy, Un-managed Development and Negative Attitudes Toward Zoning
Using historic preservation as an economic development tool, planning for development and growth, and perceived negative attitudes toward zoning were issues voiced by West Virginia’s preserva-tion community. A recent assessment of West Virginia’s economic competitive-ness, sponsored by The West Virginia Council for Community and Economic Development, found that the Mountain State is not competing successfully at the national level. Low per capita income, a slowly growing and rapidly aging popula-tion, poor educational attainment, and the national shift from a manufacturing-based economy all were identified as key factors affecting our current economic state. Goals designed to address these issues focus on stimulating and directing the economy through such things as reducing the num-ber of high-school dropouts and increasing lifelong learning opportunities, using tourism to help diversify the economy, supporting small businesses and creating general land use plans. This presents us with opportunities to demonstrate that historic preservation is a useful tool for achieving all these goals. As West Virginia developers, planners and economists prepare to move the state into the 21st century, the preservation community needs to be ready to demonstrate that the protection and use of our historic resources can help to create the healthy, viable communities and businesses envisioned by the state’s economists.
In striving for an improved economy, constituents are concerned that a lack of planning will continue to result in unman-aged development and growth that will threaten historic resources, including West Virginia’s valuable landscapes and farm-land. A number of towns and counties, including Lewisburg, Jefferson County and Putnam County, all experienced population increases during the past decade. All are dealing with the tough issue of how best to plan for growth. Residents’ concern about this issue is justified. According to a study con-ducted by the American Planning Association, West Virginia, despite its small increase in population, has developed more land per person between 1982 and 1997 than most states with the highest increase in population. In short, West Virginia leads the country in urban sprawl.
Constituents are also concerned about a perceived negative attitude toward zoning and design review. There appears to be an attitude held by many West Virginians that the government should not dictate what an individual can or cannot do with private property. In many small towns zoning and design review are viewed as “big govern-ment” rather than citizens and neighbors working with local government in an at-tempt to maintain the character and feel of their town. Elsewhere, design review code is either out of date or a “cookie-cutter” code has been inappropriately applied and has therefore proven to be insufficient. Despite this, our constituents indicated in questionnaire responses and at public meetings that they are ready to make changes to preserve historic resources in their cities and towns. SHPO staff must be ready to work with residents of cities and towns across West Virginia to create a design review and zoning code that is suitable for each town’s needs.
One cooperative effort to combat vari-ous land use issues is already underway at the state level. Under the leadership of state Senator Brooks McCabe, a group of people representing a variety of organiza-tions, such as the West Virginia Planning Association, the West Virginia County Commissioners Association, the West Virginia Association of Counties, and Preservation Alliance of West Virginia, are working to update West Virginia’s state planning legislation and West Virginia’s building code as well as to promote smart growth initiatives. SHPO staff must be ready to promote these ideas and initiatives to towns and counties as tools to help pre-serve historic resources.
West Virginia residents are concerned about the overall neglect of historic prop-erties in the state. Constituents frequently call to ask what can be done about an his-toric bridge or building that has fallen into disrepair or to report pending threats to an historic property or archaeological site. The reasons historic properties are neglected vary. In the private sector, these reasons include poverty, a decreasing and aging population, and a depressed economy. West Virginia is a poor state. The state’s median income of $27,432 is the lowest in the country. Furthermore, 19 of West Virginia’s counties have unemployment rates well above the national average of 5.4 percent, while 16 counties have greater than 20 percent of the population living below the poverty level. Most of West Virginia’s poorest counties have also suf-fered dramatic population declines over the past decade. Not surprisingly, people do not always have the means to match state development grant funds for the purposes of rehabilitation. Because rural economies are lagging, buildings that have been reha-bilitated often sit empty.
SHPO staff also receive calls about his-toric properties owned by state and federal agencies that have fallen into disrepair. In this case, neglect often results from bud-getary constraints that do not include pro-visions for rehabilitation and maintenance of historic properties. In addition, many agencies do not have an organizational mandate for conducting historic preserva-tion-related activities, such as survey and cultural resource management planning, outside of obligations to comply with fed-eral and state review laws. While Section 110 of the National Historic Preservation Act requires federal agencies to maintain historic resources in their ownership, money is rarely designated for such activi-ties. SHPO staff must create working relationships outside of federal and state mandates so agencies will come to under-stand and appreciate the value of the historic resources under their care.
More Help at the Local Level
West Virginia’s residents need and want help locally. Creating networks with other preservation organizations and build-ing regional coalitions are just two of the items specified during public meetings. Too often, local organizations tackle similar problems independently of each other in-stead of working together toward common goals. Helping local organizations establish regional and statewide connections would help provide smaller towns and communi-ties with access to a much wider variety of resources. The internet, specifically a list-serve, was mentioned most often as the preferred means of connecting preserva-tionists across the state.
Individuals as well as local organiza-tions also need SHPO support and advocacy when working with elected officials, county commissions and city councils on matters that affect historic properties. Members of HLCs and CLGs often feel that they are not taken seriously by their county or city governments or need help reinforcing their connection to the local government. Letters of support or the presence of a SHPO staff member at county commission or city council meetings often give author-ity and validation to local preservationists when stating their case about the value of preserving historic resources. As the state agency charged with protecting West Virginia’s historic properties, SHPO must be well equipped to take the leadership role when controversial issues crop up.
As interest in preserving West Virginia’s historic properties grows, this creates the need for more individuals to volunteer their time and energy. Volunteer help is critical to the accomplishment of activities such as promoting the preserva-tion of storefronts and cemeteries, recor-ding local oral history, and completing survey and National Register forms. In rural areas, these activities are generally coordinated by local historical societies desperate for human and financial resources. These same problems make it equally difficult to establish and operate an HLC or CLG. Towns and communities need help in identifying and encouraging volunteer efforts as they create viable preservation organizations.
Lack of Funding
While money is always an issue in his-toric preservation, in West Virginia certain types of historic properties, such as churches and cemeteries, are often at a disadvantage when it comes to being eligi-ble to receive funds for rehabilitation and restoration. West Virginia’s residents are interested in working with SHPO staff to find new and innovative solutions to help historic resources that fall outside of our normal purview.
Lack of funding also becomes a problem when CLGs apply for grants to conduct archaeological surveys and create design review guidelines. Archaeological work is costly because it is time and labor inten-sive. It is next to impossible to find archaeological firms who can conduct the work for the few thousand dollars CLGs can typically afford to match. Relying on volunteers is often not practical because of the physical nature of the work involved. Creating design review guidelines is also an expensive endeavor. An informal survey of state historic preservation offices across the country revealed that the cost can range between $7,000-$25,000 to produce a document that is not “cookie-cutter” in nature. Again, this is generally well above the amount CLGs can afford to match. It will be important for SHPO staff to work with communities and CLGs in the next few years to find creative solutions to these financial challenges.