Which Historic Projects Qualify for CPA Funding? Examining the Procedures You Must Follow for Historic Appropriations

“A past lacking tangible relics seems too tenuous to be credible. . .
To be certain there was a past, we must see at least some of its traces.”

--David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country

by Jennifer Goldson, AICP

Aug. 2012: Historic places and objects provide us with a tangible connection to the past, enrich our experience of the present, and can be fundamental components of community identity.

CPA funds can be used for the acquisition, preservation, rehabilitation, and restoration of historic resources. But, what exactly are historic resources within the meaning given by the CPA statute? Although Section 2 of the statute defines “historic resources,” many communities have questioned what is and what is not eligible under the definition.

This article examines the CPA’s definition of historic resources, and provides guidance on important procedures that must be followed prior to spending CPA funds in the historic category.

CPA Definition of “Historic Resources”

“A building, structure, vessel, real property, document or artifact that is listed on the state register of historic places or has been determined by the local historic preservation commission to be significant in the history, archaeology, architecture, or culture of a city or town.”
(As defined by M.G.L. Chapter 44B Section 2)

Under the statute, an historic resource is defined as one of the following; a building, structure, vessel, real property, document or artifact. In addition, historic resources must meet one of the following two criteria prior to being considered for CPA funding:

1. The historic resource must be listed on the Massachusetts State Register of Historic Places


2. It must be determined by the local Historical Commission that the historic resource is locally significant.

If the proposed CPA project has not met one of these two criteria, it is not eligible for CPA funding.

Criteria #1: The State Register of Historic Places

Maintained by the Massachusetts Historical Commission, the State Register of Historic Places was established in 1982 as a comprehensive listing of the buildings, structures, objects, and sites that have received local, state, or national designations based on their historical or archaeological significance. See our companion article for further information on the State Register of Historic Places, "Your First Step In Determining Eligibility For CPA Historic Preservation Funds."

There are over 60,000 properties listed on the State Register, including properties that are:

  1. listed in the National Register of Historic Places
  2. within local historic districts
  3. designated as local, state, or national landmarks or state archaeological landmarks
  4. protected by preservation restrictions established under M.G.L. Chapter 184, sections 31-33.

In addition to accessing the database online, you can consult the published State Register, a current copy of which is on file with every local Historical Commission. For more information about properties listed on the State Register, you can also contact the Massachusetts Historical Commission at 617-727-8470 or mhc@sec.state.ma.us. The published State Register can also be purchased at the State House Bookstore (617) 727-2834.

Criteria #2: Local Historical Commission Determination

If a resource is not listed on the State Register, it can still be considered an historic resource under the CPA statute if the local Historical Commission determines it to be locally significant. Most often, the project applicant will attend a Historical Commission meeting and present information on the significance of the historic resource. The Commission then takes a vote to decide if the resource is “significant in the history, archaeology, architecture, or culture” of their city or town. They then notify the Community Preservation Committee (CPC) of their decision.

Although there is no guideline in the Act for how the Historical Commission should make this determination, the Commission should consider using the well-established National Register criteria for making determinations of local significance. The National Register’s criteria for evaluation of significance assess a property’s integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association, and consider properties that are associated with significant events or persons, have distinctive characteristics, or have the potential to yield important archaeological information.

Next Step: What CPA verb will be used to justify the project? Acquire, Preserve or Rehabilitate/Restore?

Once the project has been determined to be an historic resource as defined by the CPA statute, the next step is to determine which of the allowed verbs per Section 5(b)(2) is applicable – would the project acquire, preserve, rehabilitate, or restore the historic resource? It may sound simple to do this, but many questionable project applications are submitted to CPCs. If the project does not fit the definition of one of these verbs, it is not eligible for CPA funding.

In general, a rule of thumb is that CPA can fund projects that deal with tangible historic resources, but not with historic interpretation, education or heightening awareness of history. For example, using CPA funds to hire a videographer to film oral histories of members of the community would not be allowed. General surveys, studies and the like that are not connected to a specific CPA project may or may not be eligible, depending upon the specifics of the request and the funding source used. When faced with such a question, your municipal counsel should be consulted.

Last Step for Projects in the CPA Rehabilitation Category

Rehabilitation (which is defined by Section 2 of the Act as “capital improvements, or the making of extraordinary repairs to historic resources…”) is the most common type of CPA historic project. A final layer of review to determine CPA eligibility applies specifically to these projects. Under the statute’s definition of “rehabilitation” the work must comply with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, which are standards describing best practices for rehabilitation of historic resources.

Your local Historical Commission may be able to provide assistance in the CPC’s review of a project’s scope of work to determine compliance with the Secretary’s Standards. In addition, the Massachusetts Historical Commission can provide more information about applying the Secretary’s Standards.

Jennifer M. Goldson, AICP, is a freelance planner who focuses on helping communities implement the CPA. Contact Jennifer at jennifer@jmgoldson.com or 617-990-4971.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, are not intended to be used as legal advice, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community Preservation Coalition.

Further Resources