The New York State Model Preservation Ordinance – A gift from SHPO

While the National and State Historic Preservation Acts provide the framework for evaluating historic resources and access to various financial incentives, it is the local level preservation ordinance that provides the framework for protecting and regulating our historic built environment. While not every municipality’s law is the same, a local preservation ordinance typically establishes a board or commission and then outlines its powers, duties, and processes for designations (establishing new landmarks and historic districts) and regulations (reviewing proposed changes to designated resources).

To support local level preservation efforts and to offer legislative guidance, New York’s State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) drafted a model ordinance back in the late 1980s. In 2014 SHPO partnered with the Preservation League of New York State to substantially revise the model law, updating it to reflect new legal developments and approaches, and benefit from over three decades worth of community-based experience. Currently there are over 200 communities across New York State which have local preservation ordinances, many of which were crafted based on the model law.

The model law provides the essential elements and components that every local preservation ordinance should have to function effectively. That being said, it still isn’t something that a municipality should just blanketly adopt. The model law meets the baseline requirements that a local preservation ordinance must have to qualify for the Certified Local Government (CLG) program, but it is advantageous for preservationists, advocates, and municipal leaders to evaluate the model law to make sure it meets their needs and circumstances. The essential purpose of a local preservation ordinance is to provide legal protection for historic resources so it is critical that the law is tailored to fit the needs that best suit the individual community.

Western New York communities have been adopting preservation ordinances since the late 1970’s, from larger cities like Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and North Tonawanda to smaller towns and villages like East Aurora, Clarence, and Albion. But none of these communities have adopted or incorporated the updated 2014 model law into their ordinance. Why is this problematic? Again, many of these local laws have been on the books for at least 30 years and throughout that time they’ve made ad hoc changes to address individual issues as they presented themselves. As you’ll read in the Preservation in Progress columns (page 9), the City of Buffalo has been doing this as well. While ad hoc changes may address that particular issue at the moment, it isn’t to the overall benefit of the ordinance or municipality-driven preservation planning. Making these independent changes negatively impacts the cohesiveness and effectiveness of the ordinance.

Currently, there are several Western New York communities who are reviewing the 2014 model law and working on adopting it as their local ordinance, and we will continue to work with those communities through that process. We cannot prevail in protecting and preserving our architecturally and culturally significant resources unless we have effective and unified legislation to guide that process. PBN stands ready to work with all communities looking to engage in preservation best practices and adopting the model law.