The ability of city staff to review minor projects to improve historic properties in the city of Newton is in a bit of jeopardy, though the city believes there is action to take and a path forward — but that path could mean saying goodbye to the Historic Preservation Commission.

“That would be a nice customer service aspect,” said Kelly McElroy, assistant city manager. “It would be nice for city staff to say ‘yes, this qualifies’ when they are taking a building permit.”

The problem arose in September, when the State Historic Preservation Office found a lapsed agreement between Newton and North Newton. In September 2019 the State Historic Preservation Office notified City of Newton staff that the agreements between the cities of Newton and North Newton and the State Historic Preservation Office that allow reviews of proposed projects to be reviewed by local administrative staff and preservation commissions had lapsed.

The current agreement was authorized in March 2014 for a period of five years.

That agreement, referred to as the Certified Local Government agreement, was originally authorized by the cities of Newton and North Newton in 1998.

Neither Newton nor North Newton has budgeted funds sufficient for continuation of the current agreement.

"This is a victim of budget pressures," said Bob Myers, Newton city manager. "We have been under considerable pressure to limit our budget and limit mill levy increases if we can. This is a casualty of that."

The option of retaining the function of conducting administrative reviews require staff time, however Newton City staff said it is not believed to be beyond what can be handled through the approved budgets.

“What we are losing we have already lost,” said Commissioner Barth Hague. “That was when we made some staff reconfigurations and we no longer pursued active community engagement around historic properties. We did not do training, we have not had events and we have not promoted our historic properties ... It is a shame. The Historic Preservation in the past has been the overseer of our historic assets, which I think we would agree as a community have been important to us. But we are at a point where we cannot sustain it.”

This year there have been seven permit applications subject to historic preservation review that qualified for administrative review and approval. There are, according to city staff, between 20 and 30 projects in Newton each year, and about 15 of them are administratively reviewed.

“Typically it is a pretty quick decision,” McElroy said. “We have done it long enough that we know what is eligible and what is not. It is pretty straightforward. The gray areas are if a property is contributing or noncontributing (to an historic district). The SHPO has been good to us in responding to us (with questions).”

The State Historic Preservation Office has offered the city the framework for a new agreement that would allow city staff to do minor reviews of projects when owners seek a building permit. Projects considered major — which until now have been reviewed by the Historic Preservation Commission — would be reviewed by the state organization. That would render the Historic Preservation Commission unneeded. Disbanding the HPC requires official action by the city commission that has not yet been taken.

According to city staff, an example of a project eligible for administrative review and approval is the replacement of a roof on a home in the McKinley district. If the roof is to be replaced with similar materials, it qualifies for administrative review and approval. If alternative materials, colors or other significant changes are proposed, the project must be reviewed by the Historic Preservation Commission before commencement of the work.

The Newton 2020 adopted budget did not include continued funding for historic preservation functions — when the budget was passed, it was believed that those job functions could be performed by staff remaining in city hall.

When a historic property owner or their contractor pulls permit from the city of Newton or North Newton, they are required to complete a form called a Certificate of Appropriateness application detailing their contact information, the property and details of the proposed project.

Currently that application is reviewed by city staff and a determination is made as to whether the review is “major" or “minor." The current agreement allows for minor reviews to take place at the administrative (staff) level, without the need for review by the local Historic Preservation Commission.

The State Historic Preservation Office granted a temporary extension of the CLG agreement while the governing bodies of both cities make formal decisions regarding the future preservation reviews. If the CLG agreement is not reauthorized, the review process for proposed projects to historic properties reverts to the State Historic Preservation Office.

If a project is applying for state and/or federal tax credits, the project bypasses review by local groups and goes directly to the State Historic Preservation Office or federal offices.

If a new agreement is not created, all reviews would have to go to the state level for approval. Those reviews — with the exception of 15 buildings on a local historical registry — will be done using federal guidelines.

At its most recent meeting, the Newton city commission instructed staff to craft a new agreement for the commission to review.

“We have a good amount of discussion of staff on this,”  Myers said. “My take on this is if it becomes burdensome, we can always ask out of (the agreement). We can cancel that agreement to do the administrative reviews. Right now I think there is more benefit to our residents here to get an immediate approval. ... Typically when people come in to get a permit, they are ready to get started.”

The Historic Preservation Commission currently meets once per month, though this month's meeting was canceled because of a lack of projects to review.

An applicant may need to wait several weeks for a meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission before a project can begin.

Newton staff will make a formal report and recommendations on next steps to the North Newton City Council for its review and action.