In a move that could sidetrack more than half a million dollars in federal grant funds earmarked for Washington, the National Park Service has suspended the city's historic preservation program.
The action also could lead to serious delays in the certification of District projects for substantial historic rehabilitation tax incentives.
The Park Service imposed the suspension because of "long-standing budgetary and staffing problems" in the D.C. program that "had not been resolved despite numerous phone calls, letters, and meetings with National Park Service Regional Philadelphia Office personnel," according to a March 31 letter from the federal agency to District officials.
Because D.C. "has not adequately demonstrated how its FY fiscal year '82 grant award was used," the Park Service will not consider a final D.C. report for that year, as well as an application to carry over part of those funds to 1983, the Park Service letter stated.
The District program is the only one that the agency has suspended or decertified since 1980 when Congress approved new federal rules governing state historic preservation programs. No similar actions are planned against other state programs, a Park Service spokesman reported.
Until the problems are resolved, the NPS has cut off all funds for the D.C. program. Some $295,963 had been allocated for this fiscal year.
Also thrown into limbo is an additional $338,632 for D.C. historic preservation that was included in the jobs bill that Congress recently passed. This money must be spent or obligated by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
A further $54,000 in unexpended funds from the previous year will be "terminated," the Park Service letter said. D.C. had proposed carrying over $45,000 of that amount as a continuation grant in this year.
The District also is barred from nominating properties to the National Register of Historic Places and from participating in the historic tax incentives program.
Those sanctions are particularly important to many D.C. real estate developers who want to take advantage of the substantial investment tax credits available for the rehabilitation of historic properties. Since being enacted by Congress two years ago in the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, those inducements have produced a sharp increase in historic rehab work all over the country.
In fiscal 1982, there were 266 requests for certification of D.C. projects. This year, Washington applications are "running much higher than last year," according to the Park Service regional office in Philadelphia.
One of the major functions of the D.C. Historic Preservation Office has been to consider properties' eligibility for the tax incentives. State historic preservation offices first review such projects and then send their recommendations on to the National Park Service, which makes a final determination.
Local input is critical in helping developers plan their renovation work and prepare certification requests for it to meet Park Service standards. Approximately 95 percent of the projects accepted at the state level are approved by the federal government, according to statistics compiled by the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers.
Washington developers will be forced to take their certification requests directly to the NPS' Philadelphia regional office. Without the local assistance, however, the process is likely to take much longer than in the past. "It's important to have local review and to have their recommendations," said Caroline Hamm, an attorney with Wilkes, Artis, Hedrick, & Lane, a D.C. law firm that does preservation work. The suspension "is going to delay tax act certifications," Hamm said.
The National Park Service also faulted the District for failing to maintain an adequate staff of professionals on its "state review board," the Joint Committee on Landmarks, which makes determinations on which local properties are to be nominated to the National Register of Historic Places.
Park Service regulations require that all such state boards include professionals in the fields of architecture, architectural history, history and both historic and prehistoric archeology.
Since May 1981, the Joint Committee has not had a specialist trained in prehistoric archaeology to help in reviewing possible nominations to the National Register and carrying out that group's other functions.
The Joint Committee also decides on applications for designations of properties as local landmarks and for areas to be listed as historic districts under the provisions of D.C.'s historic preservation law, which was passed in 1978.
The committee does not take part in the review of tax act rehab projects. That work is handled by the D.C. Historic Preservation Office,
The committee is jointly sponsored by the mayor's office and two federal agencies, the National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission on Fine Arts. Its 13 members all serve as unpaid volunteers. Nominations to the board are the responsibility of the mayor and are subject to the approval of the two other sponsors.
There are currently three vacancies on the board, two of which have been unfilled since 1981. In addition, there are four holdover members who are continuing to serve though their terms have expired.
Many Washington preservationists believe that situation is indicative of the D.C. government's general lack of support for preservation. "It's been sitting in the city's lap," commented Leila Smith, a former president of Don't Tear It Down, a Washington preservation group. "It's the city's responsibility, the mayor's responsibility, to nominate people to the committee."
Further concerns about the District government's assistance for preservation came from Joint Committee Chairman Ernest Harper. On April 20, three weeks after the date of the Park Service's letter, he had not received any word about it from D.C. government officials. "That raises some serious questions about who should be telling whom about this," he said then. On Tuesday of this week, he still had not received any official notice of the federal agency's action.
There are a number of local issues now before the committee. Among them are the nomination of the Mount Pleasant area as an historic district, the expansion of the Dupont Circle historic district by about 40 blocks and the designation of several properties as individual landmarks. These include the Tivoli Theater on 14th Street, the Georgetown Incinerator and the C&P building on 12th Street downtown.
Whether the committee still has the authority to decide on these matters is unclear. "There's a legal question as to whether the Joint Committee can continue to function on just the local level," said Carolyn Hamm. "That needs to be resolved immediately."
Mayor Barry also recently informed the committee of his plans to replace that body with a new state review board. Its members would be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council. Barry did not give a specific timetable for that.
Under the D.C. preservation law, the Joint Committee on Landmarks is to serve until another state review board is appointed. The new group would have to meet the same NPS standards for professional expertise as the committee does now.
Barry indicated to the committee that he plans to nominate at least some of the current members to the new board, but only those who are D.C. residents.
Following a meeting this Wednesday with National Park Service officials, District government representatives expressed optimism about being able to resolve the program's problems soon. Nevertheless some D.C. preservationists are doubtful that the basic cause of those difficulties can be dealt with so easily. "It's a longstanding problem," commented Ann Loikow, a former ANC commissioner and a Barry appointee to the National Capital Planning Commission. "By design or by the press of other things, for a long time there's been a lack of city support for preservation."