Historic buildings prove special target for arson

Much of America's heritage is disappearing in flames--enough, at least, for the National Trust for Historic Preservation to sit up and take notice.

Whatever the motive for arson--revenge, profit, restrictions on an owner's license to demolish a building, or just plain vandalism--it has taken its toll on the nation's historic buildings and districts. In 1981 alone, Massachusetts lost 15 buildings listed on the National Register.

Arson is the fastest-growing major crime in the United States, and last year the lost-property bill was $1.6 billion. Yet few arsonists are caught and put in jail.

While roughly 400 arson-suspected fires occur daily in the United States, only 1 in 100 arsonists is brought to court. This is partly because arson is hard to identify, since something as simple as faulty rewiring can send a building up in flames.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation undertook a study to identify the link between arson and historically significant buildings that burned down, whether due to unscrupulous landlords, location in an arson-prone area, or the heightened visibility of a designated building.

The Trust noted that the Tax Reform Act of 1976 could be a factor in the problem. Under this law, owners, to whom the land might be more valuable without the structure, lost tax write-offs for demolition as well as accelerated depreciation on new buildings. The 1976 law, however, has since been changed so as to offer the owners of historically significant buildings generous tax incentives to restore them. Building owners also gained the right to bar the listing of their property on the National Register.

Insurance companies as well, once charged with making arson profitable and not addressing the crime sufficiently in their policies, have toughened up on settlements.

Insurers are challenging more fire damage claims than before. At the same time, the Property Insurance Loss Register, a nationwide data bank, enables insurers to check on loss records both in specific areas and with individuals or groups.

The Trust and other historic societies say they hope these measures will serve, not only to deter arson, but also to encourage the improvement of existing buildings which otherwise might be allowed to deteriorate.

Programs for community groups have sprung up as well. As a result, an important fact about arson has emerged. The crime is usually predictable.

To aid in identifying potential problem areas, both the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Conservancy Group of Washington, D.C., provide resource kits and information to assist local preservation groups in identifying potential problem areas. Such organizations are viewed as a key to arson prevention.

One state group, the Comprehensive Arson Prevention and Enforcement System (CAPES) project, which operates out of the Massachusetts attorney general's office, has developed preventive steps to curb arson. The group noted that in Boston's South End, for example, arson problems flared because of such things as condominium conversion and tenant-landlord tension. Thus, CAPES began to formulate a response.

''We got reports from community groups, the fire department, and the city,'' says John Donohue of the CAPES project, ''and found that we could pinpoint signs , such as landlord neglect, unpaid taxes, and code violations. So we contact an owner when we see this, let him know he's being watched, contact the insurer, and try to force the landlord to bring the building up to the proper standards.''

Mr. Donohue also points out that the group gets in touch with tenants in suspicious buildings and tells them how to watch for potential hazards. The sharing of information has spelled success. Over the four years in which CAPES has been involved, the number of fires in Boston has risen, yet the number in observed areas has gone down.

Arson fighters are also fighting juvenile crime. One group in Bollingford, Ill., for example, found that 98 percent of all juveniles involved in arson attempts set no additional fires after going through a counseling session. And the People's Firehouse in Brooklyn, N.Y., checked arson in vacant buildings by taking over 11 city-owned buildings and improving them.

Historic buildings especially have suffered with the rise in arson. Many attribute the increased damage to the ongoing recession.

Arson crosses many lines of responsibility, says Lynn Snodden of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Therefore, setting up a comprehensive program to combat it is a challenge. She concludes, however, that ''arson is a community problem and the real defense against it is community awareness.''

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