To Certify or Not To Certify, That is the Question: The Certified Local Government Program in North Carolina

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Per the National Park Service (NPS), historic preservation has proven economic, environmental and social benefits, including higher property values, less population decline, more walkability, and greater sense of community. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA) was signed into law by the U.S. Congress on October 15, 1966 to preserve historical and archaeological sites. It was, and still is, considered the most far-reaching preservation legislation ever ratified in the U.S. Since its ratification, the national historic preservation program has functioned as a decentralized partnership between the federal government and the states. Under its current iteration, the NHPA established a federal-level program to identify, evaluate, and protect historic properties, and delegated primary responsibility for implementation to state government. This working relationship was later expanded to include local government participation via a 1980 NHPA amendment. This amendment required each state to establish a process, known as the Certified Local Government (CLG) Program, by which local governments may be certified to participate in the national framework of the federal and state historic preservation programs.

The CLG Program connects state and local governments to funding, technical assistance, and other preservation successes. The CLG Program seeks to assist local governments to develop, maintain, and enrich their historic preservation programs, in cooperation with the overarching federal and state program. A local government can enroll in the CLG Program when the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and the U.S. Department of Interior, working through the NPS, certify that the local government has adopted a preservation ordinance, established a preservation commission, and implemented a preservation program meeting federal and state standards. CLGs receive technical assistance and training from the SHPO, individually participate in the National Register nomination process, and may receive small matching grants for their preservation activities through the federal Historic Preservation Fund.

Most communities with historic preservation, historic district, or historic landmarks ordinances containing provisions of the state enabling legislation (General Statutes 160A-400 through 160A-400.15) are eligible for certification. Many North Carolina counties and cities participate in the CLG Program; currently, North Carolina has 40 CLG commissions, with 13 county CLGs and 36 municipal CLGs. Per federal CLG requirements, the designated historic preservation review commission (e.g., board, council, commission, or other institutional body) is entirely responsible for certain preservation activities. Since the local government is certified, the commission serves as a representative of the CLG and members are appointed by the chief elected official of the jurisdiction. In North Carolina, governments which qualify for certification must:

  • Enforce appropriate state or local legislation for the designation and protection of historic properties;
  • Establish an adequate and qualified historic preservation review commission;
  • Maintain a system for the survey and inventory of historic properties compatible with the statewide survey;
  • Provide for adequate public participation in the local historic preservation program, including the process of recommending properties to the National Register of Historic Places; and
  • Satisfactorily perform responsibilities delegated to it under the 1980 Act.

The North Carolina SHPO is required to earmark at least 10 percent of the money it receives from the federal Historic Preservation Fund for CLGs (approximately $70,000). All CLGs are eligible to compete for a portion of this money to be used as a 60% matching grant for eligible survey, planning, pre-development, or development activities in their jurisdiction. For example, a project estimated to cost $10,000 is eligible to receive a maximum of $6,000 in grant funds; the sponsoring CLG must provide at least $4,000 in non-federal matching funds or a combination of funds and in-kind services. Most often, CLGs direct federal Historic Preservation Fund grants towards the physical restoration and stabilization of historic properties. With federal and state grant funding on the decline, municipalities are increasingly recognizing the value of CLG enrollment.

Outside of funding, CLGs benefit local communities by establishing a stronger partnership among the national, state, and local preservation networks. The CLG program has established a stronger connection to historic preservation at the local level, ensuring that “the thread of historic preservation becomes woven into the fabric of local land use policy.” CLGs share their local expertise with federal and state preservationists and can influence the designation of their historic resources on the National Register of Historic Places. CLGs are required to provide for continuing education and expansion of expertise of their commission members. Subsequently, the increased expertise and knowledge of local preservationists facilitates increased federal and state-level expertise. The CLG Program builds and encourages the historic preservation ethic in local government by fostering local enterprise and helping preservation groups to evolve from grass-roots advocates to policymakers. As confirmed by the NPS, being a CLG demonstrates a community’s commitment to saving what is important from the past for future generations.

 Kaley Huston is a Master’s candidate in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Department of City and Regional Planning specializing in Land Use and Environmental Planning and a Community Revitalization Fellow with the Development Finance Initiative. She is also pursuing a Natural Hazards Resilience Certificate in partnership with the Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence at UNC.

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