Bill aiming to ‘divest’ state of several historical properties would dismantle Alabama Historic Commission

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WHNT) - This year's legislative budget process has looked a bit like a rummage sale. Alabama lawmakers are in the precarious position of looking for any corner to cut in search of a little extra coin. Peppered amid the 'undesirable and over costly' this session have been state parks, state troopers and now, Alabama's history itself.

The latest head-scratcher out of Montgomery would dismantle the Alabama Historical Commission  and 'divest' the state of several historical properties under the umbrella of savings.

"It would abolish the Alabama Historical Commission and move the functions that are now invested with the Alabama Historical Commission to two other state departments," explains Huntsville Historic Foundation Executive Director Donna Castellano.

HB 584 would shift the Historical Commission's administrative functions to the Department of Archives and History and transfer responsibility for historical sites to the Department of Conversation and Natural Resources. The bill would get rid of Magnolia Grove in Greensboro and Gaineswood, an antebellum home in Demopolis, for a combined savings of $250,000.

What's not clear in the bill is if all the properties owned by the state would have the support they need to survive; some will be sold off, others handed over to nonprofits.

"You know, these are some of our state's most important historic sites and structures -- how do we know that they have the resources and the funding and the knowledge in order to properly care for those sites?" Castellano asks.

The bill passed out of committee and  Sponsor Rep. Mike Holmes, R-Wetumpka, claimed it would save more than $1 million. The so-called savings amounts to about one-third of one percentage point of the state's $290 million budget hole. Truth is, no one really knows for sure if the measure would actually save money. The fiscal note attached to the bill by House Ways and Means Committee Chair Rep. Steve Clouse says "the cumulative effects of this bill are unknown."

The bill could increase costs at the Department of Archives and History and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, according to the fiscal note.

Madison County is not home to any of the state-owned historical sites. But what affects Madison County and likely every other county in the state is Section 106 reviews. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA) requires federal agencies to take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties, and afford the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation a reasonable opportunity to comment.

If a project which receives federal funding may impact a historical site, there's a mitigation process to determine what the impact is and if the project should proceed or even be relocated or modified. As we know, there are plenty of road projects in progress right now in Madison County and Castellano says several historic properties are affected by that work in some way.

"We need to make sure that we do what is necessary to support continued economic development but not at the expense of our legacy," Castellano said.

Castellano's bottom line is that the Alabama Historical Commission has to be properly funded. Right now, the department has vacancies in two architectural historian positions and one national register coordinator position. She says people who are also outraged by the proposal have options, not just opinions.

"I believe that our legislative delegation would be receptive to hearing opinions from citizens. They have always been supportive of our efforts in order to protect Alabama's historic resources and I think that if they just knew people out there cared that they would make the right decisions," Castellano said. "So I encourage everyone to pick up a phone or look up an email address and write them a note -- let them know that you care."

Listing of Madison County Legislators and email addresses:

Alabama House of Representatives
Jim Patterson
House District 21
Laura Hall
House District 19
Mac McCutcheon
House District 25
Howard Sanderford
House District 20
Ritchie Whorton
House District 22
Alabama Senate
William Holtzclaw
Senate District 2
Arthur Orr
Senate District 3
334.242.7891 (no email provided)
Paul Sanford
Senate District 7