Local Historical Commissions are an important part of municipal government in Massachusetts. Almost all cities and towns in Massachusetts have established a local historical commission. Historical Commissions are responsible for community-wide historic preservation planning.
Compiling a historic properties inventory is an essential first step for a Historical Commission. This is done on Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) inventory forms. Inventory forms address the first task of preservation planning — Identification. For more information on inventory forms, click HERE.
National Register Nominations
After a comprehensive inventory is compiled is the preparation of National Register nominations. The National Register of Historic Places is a federal listing of buildings, structures, sites, objects and districts significant in our nation’s history, culture, architecture or archaeology and that are worthy of preservation. The National Register is a formal recognition of the significance of the property but places absolutely no restrictions or conditions on private property owners unless there is state or federal involvement in a project or unless some other regional or local regulation is in effect.
Survey and Planning Grants
While inventory forms and National Register nominations may be done through local volunteer efforts, many Local Historical Commissions in Massachusetts will apply for a matching Survey and Planning grant. With an S&P grant, a Historical Commission can hire a professional preservation consultant to prepare the documents. S&P grants are awarded annually by the Massachusetts Historical Commission and are available for inventory form preparation,National Register nominations, preservation plans and public information documents.
Massachusetts Preservation Projects Fund
As a member of a Historical Commission, you may be interested in seeing a municipally owned property in town rehabilitated for a new use or restored. The MPPF is a state-funded matching grant program available to cities and towns and non-profits for the restoration and rehabilitation of significant properties.
Section 106 and Chapter 254
Historical Commissions may occasionally receive inquiries from the Massachusetts Historical Commission or state or federal agencies asking for comments on a proposed “state or federally involved” project in your community that may impact on historical or archaeological resources. Section 106 and Chapter 254 are federal and state laws that require MHC review when a state or federally involved project is undertaken in Massachusetts. Examples of state or federally involved projects include state funded road widening projects, telecommunications towers that need an FCC license and school rehabilitations although there are many others. MHC reviews over 8,000 federal or state involved actions each year. As part of these reviews, local historical commission are encouraged to participate.
As an Historical Commission, it is important for you to get the message across that your community’s historic resources are important to preserve. Typical methods include walking tours,plaque programs, newspaper articles, lectures, newsletters, distributing inventory forms and school programs.
Advising Your Municipal Leaders
Historical Commissions advise elected officials and other boards on historic preservation issues. Issues could include zoning changes, the re-use of municipally owned historic buildings, master planning or preservation of historic landscapes.
Demolition Delay Bylaws
Ordinarily, Historical Commissions do not have a regulatory function. However, many towns, through local bylaw passed at town meeting, have given their Historical Commission additional authority such as demolition delay bylaws. With a demolition delay bylaw, a Historical Commission can delay the demolitions of historically significant property in the hopes of finding an alternative to the demolition.
A Historical Commission may find that a Preservation Plan is needed to better coordinate the many activities that will help to preserve the community.
Local Bylaws and Ordinances
A Historical Commission may seek to create or change local bylaws to better protect historic resources. Examples might be local historic districts, demolition delay bylaws, scenic road bylaws or village center zoning. For more information, contact MHC for a copy of Preservation through Bylaws and Ordinances.
Similar Names and Different Responsibilities
A Historical Commission is often confused with a Local Historic District Commission and a Historical Society. It is important that you understand the difference between these three organizations. Local Historical Commissions are the official agents of municipal government responsible for community-wide historic preservation planning. Local Historic District Commissions are the review authority responsible for regulatory design review within designated local historic districts created through town meeting or city council vote. Note that in some communities with local historic districts, the Historical Commission and Historic District Commission are combined. A Historical Society is a private, non-profit organization. Historical Societies often preserve local history through house museums, maintaining collections and records and public programs.