Maryland Historical Trust acting powerless

At the consulting parties meeting in Frederick October 18 and November 14 state officials have said the purpose of the consultations was to focus on mitigation of an assumed demolition of the Tannery building, and that the state does not see a need to comply with the Section 106 process. Sec 106 was dismissed by Ms Archer as merely a federal procedure that the State does not need to follow.

This is a State project, the State being asked to provide as much funding as the City and County combined — $16m out of $31m total public funding.

State historic preservation law closely follows the wording of federal. This is acknowledged by the Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) under the heading ‘Historic Preservation Review for State and Federal Projects’ which leads off: “Historic preservation laws require state and federal government agencies to consider the effects of their projects on historic and archeological resources through a consultation process known as “Section 106” review. Protecting cultural resources benefits the public by revitalizing communities, promoting heritage tourism and preserving tangible links with our past. Through consultation with agencies, project sponsors, and the public, the Maryland Historical Trust—the State Historic Preservation Office—helps ensure that federal and state projects avoid, reduce or mitigate harm to historic and archeological properties….”  see http://mht.maryland.gov/projectreview.shtml

Initially the MHT took a firm stand for preservation. It reviewed the Birely Tannery building proposed for demolition and determined that it is of sufficient historical importance to be declared Eligible for Listing on the National Register of Historic Places. MHT subsequently reviewed the plans submitted for the City sponsored hotel and officially ruled that the project will have an ‘adverse effect’ on historic properties.

In a letter to the City July 26, 2017 MHT wrote: “We acknowledge that elements of the project will have a positive preservation outcome including the adaptive reuse of the News Post building and sensitive new construction within the (historic) district. Nonetheless, the project will involve the demolition of the Birely Tannery Building and the remaining sections of the Birely Tannery Archeological Site. Thus it is our determination that the (hotel) project will have an adverse effect (italicized in the original) on historic and archeological properties.”

State law at 5A-325 (d) (2) says “If the Director (of MHT) finds that the proposed capital project would have a significant adverse effect on a listed or eligible property, the Director and the State unit (DHCD) shall determine whether practicable plan exists to avoid, mitigate, or satisfactorily reduce the adverse effect.”

I suggest that a deliberate, full, and public process must be conducted by your two state agencies to review the proposed demolition of the Birely Tannery first as a matter of state law and second because of serious shortcomings at the City level hearings of which you may not be fully aware.

The City of Frederick’s Historic Preservation Commission failed to fulfill their obligations in the workshops and hearings leading up to their Sept 14 vote to provisionally approve demolition.  The Commission’s official Guidelines in Chapter 11 require it to “consider all possible alternatives” to demolition.  There were over ten hours of hearings extending over several evenings this fall. But these consisted almost entirely of monologues by the project’s agents. Only alternatives as envisaged by the project proponents were presented, and the Commission made no effort to solicit other alternatives allowing preservation of the Tannery.

Skeptics were given a severely limited time to speak, but we did mention an approach to developing alternatives to demolition. These in included downsizing the hotel and conference center,  purchase of an extra 13,000 square feet of a surface parking lot adjacent to Frederick News-Post site which had been recommended by the City’s site consultants JLL. Both suggestions deserved serious consideration but were cursorily dismissed by the Commission which gave the impression its mind was made up to approve.

Another possibility is to use another site for the conference center hotel. It is important background that JLL scored two other nearby sites as better (in the case of the largely vacant Post Office site) or equal to the News Post site (in the case of the Galleria site.) Neither of these sites contains any historic building, so they clearly provide possible alternatives to the Frederick News Post site and demolition of the Tannery building. No consideration was given to this during the hearing of HPC17-490, the application to remove the Tannery building, although the proponents summary of the case falsely stated that the News Post site had been ranked the best site by JLL consultants.  The error was pointed out to the City Commission in submissions but the HPC took no action to correct the record or take into account the fact that the three sites were all ranked as acceptable by the City’s prime consultant.

Also the City’s Land Management Code on this states that for sites of unusual importance, as determined by the Commission in this case:

“Plan to Preserve Site or Structure.

  1. If an application is submitted for construction, reconstruction or alteration, moving, or demolition of a site or structure of unusual importance, the Commission shall attempt to formulate an economically feasible plan with the owner of the site or structure for its preservation.
  2. If no economically feasible plan can be formulated, the Commission shall have 90 days from the time it concludes that no economically feasible plan can be formulated to negotiate with the owner and other parties in an effort to find a means of preserving the site or structure.”

There was no attempt by the Commission during HPC17-490 to attempt to formulate any plan for the preservation of the tannery as required under A. And the HPC failed to take advantage of the 90 days provided in City code under B. to negotiate with the owner.

Given the complete failure of the City Historic Preservation Commission to follow the law and its own Guidelines in this case it is incumbent on the State to do a through review of avoidance of the ‘adverse effect’ of demolition of the Birely Tannery found by the MHT.

The Section 106 process provides for public involvement as well consulting parties meetings. Under 36 CFR Part 800.2 (d) “The public (1) Nature of involvement. The views of the public are essential to informed federal decision making in the section 106 process. The agency official shall seek and consider the views of the public… (2) Providing notice and information. The agency official must, except where appropriate to protect confidentiality concerns of affected parties, provide the public with information about an undertaking and its effects on historic properties and seek public comment and input. Members of the public may also provide views on their own initiative for the agency official to con sider in decision making.”

The DHCD and MHT officials have not followed these Section 106 procedures in the case of the Downtown Frederick Hotel.  State officials have made no effort to inform the public or seek their views. The only meeting so far October 18 was closed to the public. And they have not determined whether “a practicable plan” exists to avoid the adverse effects of demolition as required in State law at 5A-325 (d) (2).

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