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In Western PA, A Gap In Preserving Historic Structures

J. Scott Applewhite
Associated Press
Ridgway, the seat of Elk County, Pa., is seen nestled amid the green of the Allegheny Mountains, Wednesday, May 6, 2009.

From establishing historic districts to offering developers incentives to protect old buildings, Pennsylvania communities have a host of options to preserve their historic structures.

But as a team of researchers from Millersville and Shippensburg universities found recently, few have created formal policies to protect those assets. A statewide study, funded in part by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, shows that just 12 percent of the state’s municipalities have enacted an ordinance spelling out how they will balance development with historic preservation.


The places with such policies tend to be in more urban areas, and they’re more highly concentrated in the central and eastern parts of the state.


“Preservation activity tends to be in more affluent, more educated, more densely populated areas, and those areas that are experiencing population growth,” said Angela Cuthbert, a geography professor at Millersville and one of the researchers.


Many parts of western Pennsylvania have experienced a drop in population as industrial jobs have declined over the past few decades. In this region, the researchers found that just 4 percent of communities have formal rules in place governing historic preservation.


“For communities that are experiencing limited to negative growth, there’s less of a perceived threat to their historic resources and as a result less incentive for regulation,” Cuthbert said.


Bill Callahan works with municipalities throughout western Pennsylvania as a community preservation coordinator for the State Historic Preservation Office. He said the cultural, economic and demographic differences between this region and the rest of the state play a role in the disparity.


Wealthier communities, for example, are often better equipped to deal with historic preservation because they have a higher tax base.


“You can have staff, you can take the time, you can hire consultants to do some of the work less wealthy communities can’t manage even if they have that desire,” Callahan said.


In their survey of communities, researchers looked for two types of ordinances to protect historic structures, either through zoning or by creating a historic district, where a board helps oversee changes to a collection of buildings.


The researchers did not take into account historic preservation efforts outside the policies local governments enact. For example, communities may rely on local historical societies or consider preservation on a case-by-case basis.


“Just because we didn’t find it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening,” Cuthbert said.


And sometimes, communities lack ordinances because they determine they do not have any historical structures worthy of preserving, Cuthbert said.


Callahan encourages communities to take historic preservation seriously.


“There is a deeply held perception that you can either do economic development, you can either have progress, or you can have your historic buildings,” he said. “That is a false dichotomy.”


Often, communities can find economic opportunity in revitalizing old buildings, he said. Old structures, which have a lot of character, can attract new entrepreneurs or residents to the area.


Callahan points to communities like Ridgway in Elk County and several communities in Erie County that have taken action on that front in recent years. He said he has encountered a newer generation of young community leaders who understand the importance of historic preservation and have made it a priority.


The researchers made recommendations to help get more communities on board.


Among them, the Legislature could take action to provide funding for more community preservation coordinators at the state level or revisit the laws surrounding municipal planning to give counties greater authority to zone with historic preservation in mind. Cuthbert said another option would be a program offering grants to lower income residents to who want to make changes to their historic homes.