Local Significance Under National Register Criteria and its Evaluation for Transportation Projects
Historic Preservation/Cultural Resources
Community & Cultural Concerns
Research Idea Scope
In evaluating bridges, road corridors and buildings for National Register significance, a frequent problem arises regarding the concept of local significance. In the early days of the historic preservation movement, attention was given almost exclusively to monuments of political figures, powerful businessmen, famous people and “white glove” history. Along the way, efforts have been made to be more inclusive of places significant to local people and communities… the “little people”. While this attempt is fair and respectable, it threatens to go too far by allowing almost anything with acceptable integrity to be deemed eligible for the National Register. Old bridges and roads are especially susceptible to this lower eligibility threshold under Criterion A, since any road or bridge provided a new transportation link that at least a few local people probably appreciated. When houses are located within a project area, consideration of local significance greatly lowers the standards of eligibility under Criterion C for architectural design. For instance, a house with a few decorative elements that has been reasonably well-kept may appear to be a great work of architecture, relative to other structures around it. Local significance has the potential to become a “catch-all” for properties that don’t otherwise meet NR Criteria; the more limited area for comparison means that any structure would have relatively more significance within that area. And if all things, or most things, are eligible, Section 106 and 4(f) reviews become lengthy, expensive, and burdensome. Questions to answer regarding this topic may include, but are certainly not limited to: 1) What is “local” – a farm, groupings of houses, community, town, city, county? 2) Should locals be the ones to determine local significance? 3) What constitutes a reasonable effort for determining local significance for various types of projects? 4) Is there any systematic way to evaluate local significance short of an historic context for each “local area”? 5) Does replacement of bridges along a significant road corridor diminish the integrity of the corridor if the alignment is preserved?
Urgency and Payoff
The West Virginia Division of Highways frequently is frustrated by the vagueness of the National Register bulletins regarding local significance. Searching high and low at the behest of the SHPO to answer the local significance question adds unreasonable time and effort to Section 106 review. In addition, more eligible structures mean more mitigation, which is time and money. If something is eligible, it should be determined as such, but the vagueness of “local significance” allows the Criteria to be manipulated and possibly too liberally interpreted.
Courtney Fint, West Virginia Division of Highways