Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Sad Ballad of SB 346

Earlier this year, state representatives proposed SB 346 ~ a bill that would alter the definition of a "governmental action" in the Georgia Environmental Policy Act (or GEPA) to exclude transportation improvements that "do not exceed $100 million in costs" ~ this is virtually every project, by the way ~ on the basis that "such project[s] shall not constitute a proposed governmental action which may significantly adversely affect the quality of the environment and the requirements." 

As a preservation planner working for the state, this was clearly an absurd notion. First and foremost, this would eliminate any form of screening for historic and archaeological sites, including unmarked burials, on essentially every state-funded transportation project in Georgia. Second, how does the cost of a project ~ especially when it is absurdly high ~ have anything to do with its potential to adversely impact the environment ~ cultural or natural? It would also significantly reduce the opportunities for work in the private sector of cultural resource management in Georgia.  

Area archaeologists, including members of SEAC and the Society for Georgia Archaeology, mounted an effort against the bill resulting in an amendment to address concerns over cultural resources. That amendment states "that an environmental evaluation shall be considered in the decision-making process, consistent with paragraph (3) of Code Section 12-16-2 [this is from GEPA, it just states that ‘Environmental evaluations should be a part of the decision-making processes of the state’], when it is probable to expect significant adverse impact on historical sites or buildings and cultural resources.” This is problematic ~ I will get to why that is a little later...

SB 346 was passed this morning. Two representatives spoke in favor ~ including the chair of the House Natural Resources & Environment Committee, Lynn Smith. Paraphrasing Smith, she asked if it is true that this will not allow GDOT to "ignore" architectural or archaeological resources? She stumbled over those words a bit, so it is possible she may have only been referring to archaeological resources and misspoke about architecture. Another representative with concerns over coastal heritage, spoke of how “well-vetted” this bill has been.  

Representative Sam Watson, who introduced the bill today, described it as potentially shaving 6-8 months off the life of each project. To put this into perspective, a fast transportation project from proposal to construction may take three years. 22 nays were overwhelmed by 146 proponents. Georgia’s representatives have spoken and their words reflect the state of historic preservation in Georgia: uninformed and leaderless. 

There is little doubt that those who rose to speak of cultural resources in the House today had the best of intentions, but even they demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding of the law they voted to circumvent. Smith’s question ~ if asked, genuinely unaware of the answer ~ demonstrated an unfounded confidence in the knowledge of Representatives Beach, Mullis, and Watson, about the GEPA process, transportation planning, in general, and how cultural resources currently are and would be accounted for in project planning. There was no follow-up ~ Watson confirmed that GDOT will not be able to “ignore” cultural resources and she accepted his assertion.

There was no deception here. The individual presenting the bill even stated that this was on the heels of HB 170 (the Tranportation Funding Act of 2015) ~ a bill providing an excess of a billion dollars of transportation funding through the state, which eliminates federal involvement on the majority of those projects, and thus, circumventing Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. Section 106 is arguably the single most important piece of legislation in preservation planning. While it may be another toothless law, it defines and mandates preservation planning itself. In less than a year, the State of Georgia has effectively circumvented the National Historic Preservation Act, Section 4(f) of the US Department of Transportation Act (which has teeth), and GEPA. Our sole consolation is the promise of an undefined process to consider cultural resources.

Speaking of that process, let's revisit that amendment: it references a vague, very base-level statement, taken directly from GEPA, that cultural resources will be considered when a significant adverse impact is expected. It’s an empty concession; the process remains undefined and it is unclear who would define it. Also, who decides when a “significant adverse impact” is probable? Would it be a coalition between the cultural resource specialists at GDOT and the Historic Preservation Division, as it has been, or will this be decided by a coalition of project managers and engineers without the expertise to anticipate these sorts of impacts? 

As I strain to deny myself the cynicism that feels so natural in this moment, we must face the unsettling fact that this bill was proposed to circumvent a simplified environmental process ~ those of us who work with GEPA understand, there is very little you can strip away from it. It is simply hard to imagine many seats at that table for preservationists or archaeologists. SB 346 included no measures for accountability, no checks and balances between agencies to ensure quality compliance.

The sad reality is that maybe this bill was well-vetted, but not by the right people. We are fortunate that Georgia archaeologists championed this cause, because without their effort, there would have been no legal protection for resources in the path of a billion dollars in transportation improvements.  The common defense of this bill was that numerous other legislation in place would account for environmental impacts. With the exception of known cemeteries, the only law for cultural resources is GEPA. Once more, the proponents of this bill fail to recognize that the environment includes more than our natural resources; it includes the built environment, historic landscapes, and trace elements of past lives that exist beneath the soil. 

So, while a mystery process is better than no process at all, that small success should be tempered by the loss of the fairly simple and effective process that was already in place. The indeterminate "they" will now proceed to revise a law they don't understand with the express purpose of shaving 6-8 months off project delivery at GDOT, which is unlikely to happen regardless. The State of Georgia breathes new life into the old cliché of the blind-leading-the-blind

So, here we are. How do you feel about it? If you are reading this, you must have some stake in historic preservation; if you stuck with me this far, you must really, genuinely care. I have shrugged off too many frustrations of late. I am pissed and disheartened. 

I am pissed, because this is important. This is too flipping important to have been developed and vetted by persons who lack any experience whatsoever with environmental compliance for cultural resources. I am pissed that representatives, whose interest is in transportation, were able to easily and effectively circumvent environmental legislation that should not have been in their purview. Did anyone else notice that the bill refers to "historical sites" ~ historical?! It is 2016 and virtually every person I encounter on the street ~ in all corners of Georgia ~ still believes that the "National Registry of Historical Places" is actually a thing and that it prevents property owners from making any changes whatsoever to their homes. It is clear that education about historic preservation is needed at all levels in this state. 

I am disheartened because more and more I am beginning to see my passion and profession reduced to the misunderstood nuisance that naysayers have always claimed it to be, and I feel powerless to combat it; that state representatives are undermining laws that they lack the professional vocabulary to properly discuss; and that the collective constituency to which I belong lacks the influence or presence to even be recognized as anything more than an interest group on this matter. But more than anything else, I feel responsible, because I did not do more to fight it ~ in the two months it has been presented and, more importantly, in the years before it was even an idea. We couldn't win this fight, because it was lost before it began. There was no concept of a resistance to it ~ no concern over combative agencies, no fear of public outcry in the media, or the retaliation of angry voters. Our voice was limited to 22 nays. 

I have a young son, a stressful job, other interests and commitments, and personal issues like everyone else that affords little time and energy to be a leader on something that is so dear to my heart. I imagine you could cut and paste that last sentence and apply it to nearly every preservation professional I know in Georgia. This is an exhaustive effort. Atlanta preservationists have experienced some recent successes in being heard and combating passive efforts to demolish local landmarks. How can we ~ a sea of passionate part-timers ~ expand this to the state at large? The effort to remain good stewards in the face of SB 346 will be carried on by qualified professionals in the state, I assure you; but the question is, what do we do now that this fight is over? 


  1. Other than contacting my state representative, I didn't fight this enough. I'm a NEPA/GEPA planner and am very pessimistic about GDOT handling this well. I'm also seeing my projected workload for the next two years drop to near zero. After being a NEPA planner for over a decade, I am contemplating a career change.

    1. That is so frustrating to hear. Yours is such an important (and regrettably, thankless) job. I really hope you can find a way to stick with it. I honestly don't believe this will work out in the long run, but I'm more concerned with the short run, right now ~ losing professionals like you is high on that list. Solidarity, friend.