Committee to work on reforming Mobile’s historic preservation rules

In an effort to reform the city’s historic preservation law, Mobile City Council on Tuesday introduced an ordinance in favor of creating a committee to study the issue.

On Tuesday, the Mobile City Council voted to delay action to reform the Mobile Historic Development Commission (MHDC) by a month to try to find a compromise between the city’s current law and state regulations.

“I ask those in the heritage conservation community, within MHDC and everyone else, to be patient as we work through this process,” Councilor William Carroll, the key driver of this effort, said during the meeting.

Last week the council introduced an ordinance that would reduce the membership of the MHDC from around 80 to nine by eliminating the seats filled by outside civic organizations. In addition, the ordinance would also give the mayor and council nominating authority for the MHDC and the city’s Architectural Review Board (ARB), which works with the MHDC to review buildings in the city’s seven historic neighborhoods.

The changes were aimed at bringing Mobile into compliance with Alabama’s historic preservation laws. The City of Mobile Historic Preservation Ordinance, enacted in 1972 and revised in 2002, predates the Alabama State Historic Preservation Act, which was enacted in 1989.

But Caroll; represents District 2, which contains most of the city’s historic districts; says one of his worries is changing the city’s ordinance because it would make it harder for citizens to challenge ARB decisions. Under the current rules, citizens can lodge a complaint with the city council; Alabama law requires these appeals to go through the circuit court system.

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Carroll has proposed creating a committee made up of MHDC members, city officials and the city council that would review the proposed ordinance and previous city statutes to try to find a compromise that would keep Mobile consistent with state statutes would bring.

“The [MHDC] needs an opportunity to engage in a restructuring or restatement of our local ordinance to either conform with that of the state Enabling Act or to improve what it has,” Carroll said after the meeting. “To be honest, I don’t think they’ve had enough opportunity to check it out and get back to us.”

Tim Manness, the current president of the MHDC, spoke in favor of the city ordinance changes at the March 14 city council meeting.

Some have argued that Mobile’s historic development law would be given “grandfather” status because it was passed before state law. But Bruce McGowin, an attorney for Hand Arendall Harrison Sale who is working with the city to make changes to the city ordinance, says Grandfather because the city made significant changes to the ordinance in 2002, 13 years after the state bylaws went into effect status no longer applies. McGowin has been a member of the MHDC since 2013.

It’s about Mobile’s Certified Local Government (CLG) status, awarded by the Alabama Historical Commission. If the city continues to fail to keep up with state laws, Mobile’s CLG status would be in jeopardy.

Without CLG status, the city is no longer eligible for certain state and federal historic preservation funds — funds that Mobile has used in the past to list the city’s Automobile Alley on the National Register of Historic Places, Paige Thomas, CLG Coordinator for the Alabama Historical Commission, the city council said Tuesday at a meeting of the council’s rules committee.

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And in an ancient city like Mobile, with roots dating back to the 17th century, the MHDC and ARB oversee thousands of properties across all seven historic districts. Losing the city’s CLG status would affect the two bodies’ ability to preserve as many historic buildings as possible, said Stephen McNair of McNair Historic Preservation, a private consultancy that works with developers in the historic preservation space.

Jason Johnson, a spokesman for the city of Mobile, said that should the city lose its CLG status, the city would no longer be eligible for funding for projects like Africatown’s nomination to the National Register of Historic Places and exploration of the Twelve would come Mile Island Ship Graveyard where the Clotilda landmark was erected.