Integrity as a Legal Concept | Sara C. Bronin

Integrity—the ability of a resource to communicate its historic significance—is a physical concern for heritage conservation practitioners.1 But it is also a legal concept, integral to binding judgments that determine whether and how certain resources are protected. Focusing on US law, this essay articulates the contours of integrity both before and after a resource is designated historic.

Most existing scholarship on integrity focuses on the designation process, which is the formal process by which a resource is evaluated for listing on a register of historic places. A person seeking to list a resource on such a register must demonstrate that the resource satisfies legal criteria for listing. The integrity determination is a threshold issue—fundamental to historic preservation laws, which apply almost exclusively to resources actually listed on historic registers.

Scholars have criticized the integrity requirement in designation determinations because they believe it bars certain types of resources from receiving legal protection. For example, resources associated with low-income people, indigenous people, or people of color often change over time, such that they do not maintain the physicality of the time period of significance. Accordingly, they may lack integrity under strict interpretations of designation criteria. Yet these places have meaning, enshrined in storytelling and memory, which can be documented but do not “count” as proof of significance in the legal sense. These concerns about inclusion are critically important. But focusing on the designation process alone may obscure the fact that the concept of integrity is embedded in other areas of law.

After a resource is designated historic, the law continues to protect its integrity in several ways. This essay focuses on three: by imposing obligations on public actors, by imposing obligations on private actors, and by conferring benefits on private actors. In these situations, integrity is essential to the legal obligation itself, and it is treated as formally as it is during the designation process. For example, many federal and state statutes require public agencies to consider or protect historic integrity in making decisions or executing projects, and many local laws require private parties to do the same. Similarly, integrity is a consideration in whether private parties may receive benefits, such as tax credit for rehabilitations and tax deductions for qualified easement donations, for their preservation activities.

In each of these post-designation legal arenas, a decisionmaker must determine whether integrity is affected. But before she can do that, she must identify the aspects of integrity held by the resource. Applications for designation can provide a baseline understanding, but integrity may change from the time of designation to the time a post-designation legal issue arises. Moreover, some laws protect non-designated historic resources, meaning that decision makers must assess integrity without the benefit of baseline documentation assembled during the designation process. Integrity is thus a moving target, with shifting concepts of integrity arising as different legal regimes require or as different decision makers allow.


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