Mobile city officials are considering a new ordinance that would update the city’s historic preservation laws to comply with state laws.
On Tuesday, Mobile City Council introduced an ordinance amending the city’s historic development ordinance, which has been on the books since 1972 and was last updated in 2002.
The ordinance currently violates Alabama’s historic preservation laws, which require local governments with historical development commissions to appoint members to the commission in specific ways.
Currently, 32 civic organizations can appoint two representatives, in addition to the city council, the Mobile County Commission, and the mayor, to the Mobile Historic Development Commission, which is tasked with preserving and revitalizing the city’s seven historic neighborhoods without the approval of either the mayor or local council. There are more than 80 seats at the MHDC, although not all are filled.
Alabama law requires only the mayor to recommend appointments to the commission, according to Bruce McGowin, an attorney the city hired to work on the ordinance. These appointments are then approved by the City Council. State law also requires that appointees have specific qualifications in history, architecture, real estate or law, and that a certain number of appointees live in historic neighborhoods, McGowin said.
The proposed regulation would limit the Commission to nine members. Current members of the MHDC who would no longer have a seat could join a new non-profit organization called Friends of Mobile Historic Development. The council will consider approving a performance agreement with this non-profit organization at next week’s meeting.
In addition, the city’s Architectural Review Board (ARB), which exists in conjunction with the MHDC and reviews historic properties to ensure they were developed to historic standards, is currently appointed by the City Council but from a list of pre-approved candidates by the Historic Preservation Society, the Commission, and the Mobile Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
Alabama state law requires that candidates for the ARB be nominated by the mayor and not necessarily at the recommendation of third-party organizations.
Finally, Mobile’s statute provides that anyone wishing to appeal an ARB decision must file their appeal with the city council. Alabama law requires these complaints to go through the circuit court system.
The current head of the MHDC, Tim Manness, supports these changes and spoke at the meeting about the need to make these changes. In addition, Stephen McNair, who runs McNair Historic Preservation, also spoke at the meeting about the significance of these changes.
“This is really a matter of best practices to bring us up to the standard of every other city in the state with historic districts,” McNair said during the meeting.
The stakes are high if the city continues to violate state laws: The city of Mobile is recognized by the state as a Certified Local Government, or CLG, which qualifies it for certain federal and state historic preservation grants.
Mobile’s failure to comply with state laws jeopardizes its CLG status, Mobile officials and preservationists say, meaning it would not be eligible to apply for grants and other preservation funds.
If the city loses its CLG status, Mobile would not be eligible for funding to list Africatown on the National Register of Historic Places, conduct research at the Twelve Mile Island ship graveyard where the Clotilda was discovered, or updated design review guidelines to develop for the ARB, says Jason Johnson, a spokesman for the city of Mobile.
But a city councilor wasn’t convinced. Councilor William Carroll, who works in construction and whose district is home to most of the city’s historic districts, said he was concerned about moving the appeals process to the district court rather than the city council.
By taking the appeals process to the district court, the complainant is burdened with hiring a lawyer to file legal documents and other bureaucracy that people may not have the time or money for. Going to the city council is much easier, he said.
“There are now some people who can’t even afford to paint their home in a historic neighborhood, let alone go to circuit court to defend themselves,” Carroll said after the meeting. “We need a clear way to help and not harm anyone intentionally or unintentionally.”
Additionally, Carroll said he was concerned that the mayor had all the appointments for the MHDC and the ARB. The mayor is a person, he says, so the appointments that would be made would depend subjectively on that person’s whims. The council usually has no objection to the mayor’s appointments, he says.
In the end, the Council voted to bring the regulation into committee. The Council’s Rules of Procedure Committee will meet at 8am next Tuesday to discuss the regulation and then consider it for a final vote at the Council’s regular meeting later that day.
Mobile was the first city in Alabama to establish a Historical Development Commission in 1972. The state of Alabama passed legislation in 1989 authorizing historical development commissions in all communities.