Saturday, March 24, 2012

Kick the Can: Do a Preservation Plan

Another segment for my forthcoming book, How to Destroy Historic Landmarks, wherein practical advice is offered to proponents of projects whose effects will include the destruction of historic buildings, archaeological sites, indigenous spiritual places, cultural landscapes, and other such impediments to economic development.

The Delights of Delay

Since you’re anxious to get your project under construction, when confronted with some sort of “cultural heritage” that has slimed its way into the path of your project, your tendency may be to seek the quickest way possible to get rid of it. In some cases, however, it may serve your interests – no, it definitely serves your interests – to opt for a strategy of delay.

Provided, of course, that what’s delayed is doing anything about that “heritage” – not your project.

The HPP by Whatever Name

The idea is to maneuver the NIMBYs or tribes or preservation nuts who are opposing your project into kicking the can of preservation down the road, without impeding decision making about your project. In the United States this is most often done by promising to develop an “Historic Preservation Plan” – or maybe an “Historic Resources Management Plan” or a “Cultural Resources Management Plan.” The name isn’t important, so let’s call it an HPP for short.

The Deal

Here’s how it works. You’ve had all the necessary surveys and studies done, and something’s been found. Let’s say it’s a landscape dotted with places where an indigenous group’s ancestors lived, buried their dead, hunted, gathered, reaped and sowed, and where that group’s descendants carries out religious practices to this day. Your project needs to go right in the middle of it.

Are you screwed? Not if you play the HPP card skillfully. It may well be that you can get everyone – or at least the federal agency responsible for your project, the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO), and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), and under U.S. law they’re the only ones who really count – to agree that it will be OK for your project to go forward, provided an HPP is prepared and implemented. They may not even require that it be implemented, as long as it’s written up. Agency people and SHPOs have gotten very used to this sort of thing; they'll very likely jump at the chance to develop an elaborate, many-paged, multi-claused memorandum of agreement that lays out, in more or less incomprehensible language, how the HPP will be put together, what it will contain, and how it will be reviewed and approved by all the necessary parties down the road. Everybody solemnly signs the agreement, and the law has been complied with; your overseeing agency has “taken into account” the effects of the project, and set up a plan for addressing them, supposedly, to everyone’s satisfaction. Now it can approve your project, and you’re good to go.

What You'll Have to Do

You’ll probably have to task your “CRM” contractor to write up the HPP, and that will cost you a few bucks, but that’s a small price to pay for getting your project over the “historic preservation” review hurdle. Your contractor can spend the next year or more writing the plan, earnestly discussing it with whoever’s interested, going through draft after draft after draft – and all the while you’re acquiring land, mobilizing your construction crews, and getting it on to build your project. By the time it dawns on anybody in a position to do anything about it (if any such body cares) that no plan on earth can “preserve” the place while your project goes forward, your project is a fait accompli, or at least so far advanced that there’s no realistic way to stop it any more.

Can People Really Be This Dumb?

Yes.  You may well ask why anybody would be stupid enough to accept this kind of “solution” to a conflict between heritage and development – but for heaven's sake, don't! Accept it, and try not to grin until you’re out of the room having a drink someplace where you won’t be noticed. Major agencies of the U.S. government have adopted the HPP strategy as their major approach to dealing with heritage/development conflicts. SHPOs and the ACHP have recognized it as a way to create the impression that sticky cases have been resolved, getting them off their desks and making them – the SHPOs and ACHP – look like they’re accomplishing things. Even some tribes and historic preservation advocates have been bamboozled into joining the kick-the-can game, because the proposal for a “plan” is couched in high-sounding language and promises lots of good stuff – though this usually really amounts only to more (and more and more) studies and meetings and discussions and consultations.  And besides, they’re assured by the responsible agencies, SHPOs and ACHP that this is the way things are done; this is the way the law’s complied with.

Kick That Can!

So when your consultant starts talking HPP – or CRMP or HRMP or whatever – listen carefully and make sure that what he’s talking about is something that will be done after the project is approved, so it can have no influence on the go-no go decision. If that’s what he’s proposing (and it almost always is), then going for it may be a very effective way to move your project forward and leave the NIMBYs, tribes, and old-place huggers choking in the dust.

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