Historic preservation board appointments draw criticism from some over relation to heritage area effort

City Commissioners re-appointed Rich Ecke and Ellen Sievert to the city-county Historic Preservation Advisory Commission during their June 1 meeting.

Both have been serving on HPAC and Sievert is the former city-county historic preservation officer who retired from the city in 2016.

Two members of the public raised concern about Ecke and Sievert who are both affiliated with the nonprofit working to establish a national heritage area in the region.

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Commissioners disagreed over whether that was a genuine conflict of interest for members of the HPAC and voted 4-1 to reappoint Ecke and Sievert.

The nine-member board consists of four members appointed by the City Commission, four appointed by the County Commission and the ninth member with professional architectural expertise is selected by the eight other members.

Sievert was appointed in February 2018 for a partial term and reappointed for her first full three-year term in May 2018 running through June 2021. Ecke was appointed to HPAC in May 2018 for a three-year term through June 2021.

Both are eligible for an additional three year term.

The HPAC was established by ordinance in 1988 and city code requires that members have expertise in one or more of the following areas: history, planning, archaeology, architecture, architectural history, historic archaeology, or other history preservation related disciplines such as cultural geography or cultural anthropology. Ownership of property nominated to the National Register of Historic Places may also qualify a person to serve on this commission.

Commissioner Rick Tryon said he believed it was a way for a government appointed body to promote the heritage area, which has not yet been established but a group of locals created a nonprofit to fundraise for a feasibility study and hire consultants to write the report that’s required by the National Park Service and Congress for consideration.

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National heritage areas, or NHAs, are Congressionally designated areas and to receive the designation, an area must “tell nationally important stories that celebrate our nation’s diverse heritage. NHAs are lived-in landscapes. Consequently, NHA entities collaborate with communities to determine how to make heritage relevant to local interests and needs,” according to the National Park Service.

Tryon said appointing members to HPAC who are affiliated with the heritage area nonprofit “doesn’t look right” and that there could be ethical issues.

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Jeni Dodd, one of the local residents who raised concerns about the appointments during the June 2 commission meeting, filed an ethics complaint against the city planning department in August 2020. That complaint was reviewed by the city’s Ethics Committee, a citizen panel, in February and found to be unsubstantiated.

The complaint was forwarded to the Montana Attorney General’s Office, which declined to pursue the case.

Commissioner Tracy Houck said that the appointments weren’t a debate about the heritage area and that the effort to establish a heritage area had been “a very public” process, starting with public meetings in 2015 that were attended by more than 100 people.

She said the heritage area would help the region capitalize on the area’s history and drive tourism.

“We need to tell our story in order to grow our community,” Houck said.

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Houck said that the city often has vacancies on advisory boards and to those who complain about appointees to “by all means, step up to the plate and volunteer.”

Craig Raymond, city planning director, said that it’s not surprising that HPAC members are affiliated with the heritage area since exploring and supporting the effort to establish a heritage area was identified specifically in the 2013 Growth Policy that was adopted by commissioners.

Commissioner Mary Moe said she took exception to the language of perception since conflict of interest is a precise legal term.

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“Perception is not reality, perception is gossip,” Moe said.

Another group of locals has mounted significant opposition to the proposed heritage area, citing concerns that such a designation would affect private property rights.

The group has said that individual property owners within the proposed area, which includes all of Cascade County, were not consulted about the feasibility study and are concerned that the NHA designation would impose restrictions on their property.

Beginning in July 2020, that group solicited resolutions of non-support for the heritage area from various entities, according to Rae Grulkowski of Montanans Opposing Big Sky County National Heritage Area.

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National Park Service officials have said on multiple occasions that the designation does not grant control over private property.

There are now 55 NHAs nationwide, as President Donald Trump approved six in 2019.

2020 Congressional Research Service report reiterated an earlier report addressing that many laws establishing NHAs specifically address concerns regarding private property rights and don’t typically allow for the federal acquisition of land.

Legislation was passed in the recent Montana legislative session regarding heritage areas, but Jane Weber, former county commissioner and chair of the heritage area nonprofit, said that the law doesn’t change their plan to submit the feasibility study to the NPS for review.

She said that they’re aware of the bill and the final version was reviewed by their legal counsel who “advised this legislation is unconstitutional, as the state cannot condition a Congressional decision. Should the matter come up in the future, this law will be challenged and rejected by the courts.”