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Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Myth of the Overworked SHPO

We hear it all the time from State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPOs) and their staffs – “You ought to see the pile of work on my desk!”  “You should see the load of stuff I have to review!”  “It’s impossible to keep up with the workload!”  

We hear this plaint, mostly, as an excuse for slow and tardy reviews of plans, proposals, and findings submitted to the SHPOs under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and its regulations (36 CFR 800).  We also hear it as an excuse for failing to address difficult issues and the concerns of the public, for failing to seek creative solutions to historic preservation problems – “there just isn’t time; our workload is too big.”

It’s easy to sympathize with this kind of complaint, and for the most part we do sympathize – “we” being the consulting community, the federal agencies who think they have to get SHPO sign-off on their projects, the applicants whose projects get reviewed, and the citizens whose calls to the SHPOs for help go unanswered. 
Increasingly, though, I’m coming to think that our sympathy is misplaced.

Item: toward the end (I hope it’s the end) of a long-running effort to negotiate a memorandum of agreement (MOA) on management of a federal campus, consultation got hung up on the SHPO’s insistence that the responsible federal agency henceforth submit for SHPO review every minor change it proposes to campus landscape features (sidewalks, benches, plantings) – even though the SHPO has agreed that the landscaping makes no contribution to the campus’ significance.

Item: After spending some two months in silent possession of another draft MOA – drafted in accordance with the most current guidance on MOA preparation – another SHPO returned it with changes; these for the most part amounted to a random rearrangement of paragraphs, often in ways that made the document more ambiguous, violating basic principles of MOA construction.  

Item: Another SHPO is consistently slow in reviewing documents, and when reminded of an impending deadline claims that the relevant document has been lost and must be re-sent.  On one occasion the lost document was found (by a visiting agency employee) on a desk adjacent to that of the reviewer, where it had apparently languished for months.  Another SHPO, uniquely among parties consulting on an MOA, cannot handle electronic transmission of documents, but must have them all delivered in hard copy.

Item: An SHPO recently sat for over a month on an agency determination of “no adverse effect” based on a showing that although there were historic properties in the vicinity, none of them would be visually affected by a new construction project and there was scant likelihood that archaeological material would be disturbed.  The SHPO finally returned the document with a letter insisting that the determination be changed (inaccurately) to one of “no historic properties affected.”

Item: Several historic preservation plans (HPPs) I’ve reviewed lately, developed in consultation with several different SHPOs, either set out internal programs to ensure that new construction and rehabilitation are done in accordance with the Secretary of the Interior’s pertinent standards and guidelines, or require that professionally qualified personnel be embedded in facility staffs to accomplish the same purpose – or both – but at the same time provide for SHPO review of virtually every action carried out under the HPP’s terms.

To judge from the above examples – and others only modestly less ridiculous – I have to conclude that the SHPOs are imposing their burdens on themselves.  

First, they simply are not willing, perhaps not able, to let go of the opportunity/responsibility to review paperwork, regardless of the need for such review:

Second, they insist on tinkering in meaningless but time-consuming ways with every piece of paper that lands on their desks – or don’t tinker, but simply equivocate and delay.

Third, they organize themselves so poorly that they can’t efficiently process the paperwork they insist on receiving.

Fourth, they have such a thin understanding of their business that the dictates they impose are often flatly wrong, inconsistent with the regulations or best practice, or simply unnecessary.

Why do they do this?  I don’t know, but the pattern suggests a sort of existential crisis.  The SHPOs don’t know what purpose they’re serving but they’re desperately afraid of losing support for serving it, so they do their damnedest to convince themselves and the world that they’re frightfully busy doing vital public business. 

And of course, the business to which they devote themselves is safe business – business that’s unlikely to get them in political trouble.  However frustrated federal agencies and applicants may get with slow and stupid reviews, the issues are too esoteric, and too penny-ante, to justify filing complaints at high political levels.  And the public is too unaware of, or confused by, the whole historic preservation game to complain about having its concerns ignored while the SHPO staffs pile, paw through, pass around, ponder, and prevaricate on routine paperwork.

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