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The Park Service's Historic Buildings Can Be Saved Without Resorting to Leases


The National Park Service took it upon itself to restore the Hatteras Weather Bureau Station. NPS Photo.

It's no secret that I've been troubled by the National Park Service's seemingly quick reliance on the private sector to preserve historic buildings on its properties.

The agency's ongoing efforts to allow a private developer to lease three dozen buildings at Fort Hancock in Gateway National Recreation Area are being done in the name of preservation. Yet there are parks that are managing restoration without resorting to privatization.

One example can be found at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, where Superintendent Bob Krumenaker managed to obtain $1.5 million to beautifully restore the historic Raspberry Island Light Station. Of course, read the fine print and you'll discover that Superintendent Krumenaker wasn't able to secure funds to staff the restored light station, nor to restore his five other light stations.

But he was able to take a step in the right direction. And draw attention to his other needs.

Another success story can be found at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, where the Hatteras Weather Bureau Station stands today in much of its original 1901 glory. When the Park Service determined in 1984 that the building was in need of a wide range of repairs, ranging from dealing with termite problems and water damage to foundation deterioration, the agency didn't turn to the private sector for help but rather drafted a restoration plan and managed to obtain money to pay for the work.

Last month, after three years of work and $850,000 in restoration work, the weather station went back into business, this time as a visitor center and eventual museum for visitors to the national seashore. I'd say that's a much better return on the agency's investment that turning the building over to a developer with thoughts of a B&B dancing in his head.


Let's not forget that all funds for restoration of park properties at one time were private. Just because money has percolated through government hands doesn't make it any more "pure." There are many, many private organizations who have only the best intentioins for the preservation of historic buildings within the park syatem.

The best way to preserve historical buildings is to use them. I'm reminded of Old Town Sacramento, which was in a shambles in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, it's bustling with life and business, attracting wealthy tourists who invest their money in the local economy. One of the great things about Old Town Sac is that one can have a meal or some ale where people a century before dined and imbibed. One can buy clothing in a store that may have sold 19th century clothing.

I have a problem when the NPS takes questionably appropriated money from citizens and then tells them the best way to protect past human habitation and industrial areas is to enshrine them and keep humans from living and working there. If Europe had this same crazy mentality, millions would be living in refuge camps and no one would be able to collect rent or make a profit off historic locations.

Reform the National Park Service!

Welcome back Frank. As a quick point of clarification, I'm not sure anyone disagrees with you on this point. I'm pretty sure the Cultural Resource folks within the NPS say the same thing, that historic buildings need to be occupied, they need to be lived in and cared after every day. I think it's the National Historic Preservation Act of '66 that the Parks use as a guideline for managing their historic buildings, which claims the same thing, that buildings need to be occupied.

Fort Hancock - Does the Law Require Its Preservation? And HOW?

The United States Supreme Court has held that the standard for the court’s review of agency actions such as that by the Department of the Interior/National Park Service on the Sandy Hook/Fort Hancock restoration is: “narrow and a court is not to substitute its judgment for that of the agency.” The NPS has considerable discretion to administer, use, and lease the properties it is tasked with protecting so long as it complies with applicable environmental laws. It is difficult almost to the point of impossibility to overturn such agency action, if procedural requirements have been followed.

A case decided in Federal Court in New Jersey on September 13th will set a precedent in deciding whether restoration of historic buildings in the parks will be public or private. In her opinion in Save Sandy Hook Corporation v. the US Department of the Interior, Court No. 04-05908, US District Court Judge Mary Cooper explains the controlling law in great detail. She concluded that the issuance of the Finding of No Significant Impact [“FONSI”] with respect to the Fort Hancock rehabilitation project, and the lease with Sandy Hook Partners for 36 of the approximately 120 buildings within the historic district, did not violate any provision of the laws involved, and that the record demonstrated that the NPS had, as required, extensively analyzed all potential impacts of the rehabilitation and reuse of the District, including any caused by the SH Partners lease.

"Specifically, the NPS examined all relevant data and articulated a rational and satisfactory explanation in the FONSI for selecting the Rehabilitation Alternative. It considered all appropriate factors and made all determinations before entering into the lease. Accordingly, the Court finds that the NPS’s decision to lease 36 buildings in the Fort Hancock Historic District to SH Partners was not arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or contrary to any law."

There are four major laws governing this matter:

The National Park Service Organic Act (“NPSOA”), which created the NPS as a branch of the Department of the Interior, was enacted in 1916. The NPSOA tasked the NPS with the responsibility for promoting and regulating the use of national parks, monuments, and reservations “to conserve the . . . historic objects . . . therein and . . . gives the Secretary . . . the authority to enter into a lease with any person or governmental entity for the use of buildings and associated property . . . .

The Gateway National Recreation Act (“GNRA”) requires the Secretary of the Interior to inventory and evaluate all structures with potential historical significance located in the Sandy Hook unit, and “provide for appropriate programs for the preservation, restoration, interpretation, and utilization of them.”

The National Historic Preservation Act (“NHPA”) . . . establishes that it is the policy of the federal government to encourage the public and private sector to preserve and utilize all usable elements of the Nation’s historic buildings and environment.

The National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) does not mandate that a federal agency reach a particular result, but instead prescribes the necessary process the agency must employ to reach its result. . . . The agency is not constrained by NEPA from deciding that other values outweigh the environmental costs.

On environmental issues, the Court held that: (1) the NPS proceedings were conducted in compliance with the NEPA, (2) the conclusions reached by the NPS are supported by the official record [30 volumes containing more than 9,000 pages], and (3) the proposed action is consistent with the purposes of the NEPA. It examined the revised Environmental Assessment, which evaluated (1) a No Action Alternative; and (2) a Rehabilitation Alternative (Proposed Action) that would permit the rehabilitation and reuse of 100 historic structures in the Fort Hancock Historic District. This assessment concluded that The No Action Alternative would have a major, long-term adverse impact on the historic buildings in the District, with a continued loss of significant, character-defining features; continued deterioration of the buildings; and loss both of the sense of the historical period of significance, and the military feeling of the landscape.

"After some number of years of continued deterioration, the physical features of the National Historic Landmark would not remain sufficiently intact for the property to convey its association with significant historic events."

Because the Rehabilitation Alternative would be executed in conformity with the Secretary’s Standards [as well as those of the NJ State Historic Preservation Office, which are even more stringent], the Court accepted the finding by NPS that there would be no negative impact to the buildings and structures, and that the rehabilitation of buildings in the area, and replacement of missing historic trees and foundation plantings at prominent locations would have a major, long-term beneficial effect.

Fort Hancock is one of fourteen National Historic Districts within Monmouth County, and area resplendent with colonial and revolutionary history. As such it has already been determined to be “significant to this Nation’s heritage.” The Fort and the buildings within it are therefore deserving of preservation; the law as it stands now requires that the NPS do it; and to accomplish this they have selected what they believe to be the only viable alternative.

The state of government financing of the Nation’s park system dictates that the mandated preservation of Fort Hancock can only be done with private financing. The Sandy Hook Foundation has restored the Lighthouse Keepers’ quarters [now its headquarters], and, in conjunction with the New Jersey Lighthouse Society, the Lighthouse itself [the Nation’s oldest]. The Foundation is now going on to one of the coastal mortar batteries, another ambitious project that will cost in excess of $1,000,000. But we're not dealing with one or two buildings now. The entire Fort Hancock project is too large for the Foundation, the more than half-dozen other NGO’s already present, and the new ones that will be added under the minimum 30% educational use required under the lease. The rest will have to be “commercial.” Sorry Kurt!

Anyone with experience in administrative law should know that unless the controlling laws don’t mean what they seem to say, there is nothing to appeal in the Court’s decision. Save Sandy Hook will have done nothing but delay the preservation of these crumbling buildings, increasing the cost of their restoration. They will almost assuredly lose in the end, will have to pay the government’s and Sandy Hook Partner’s costs, and will have more firmly set historic restoration within the parks on the path of private financing that, at least for larger projects, will have to be commercial.

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