advocacy

House Bill 906: Conveyance of Heritage Preserve Properties

Keeping up with pending legislation is never fun (for me) and can be tedious. However, it is very, very important. The latest round of “what could they possibly be thinking?” comes from the Georgia House of Representatives and is a direct threat to many state-owned historic properties in Georgia.

The Need to Know:

This bill, which has passed the Georgia House, allows the Department of Natural Resources to much more easily sell state-owned, Heritage Preserve-designated properties in portions “up to and including 15 acres”. The bill will allow the sale of land to a “private entity”, instead of just local governments, which is currently allowed. In addition, the bill will remove the Georgia General Assembly and the State Properties Commission from the process, preventing the checks and balances of power.

The Immediate Threat:

The real reason for this bill is to sell a portion of Butler Island Plantation and the Lampham-Patterson House to private individuals. These developers plan to tear down the dairy barn and create a beer brewery. Over 900 enslaved Africans lived on this rice plantation owned by two brothers, Pierce and John Butler. Eventually, many of these people were sold in Savannah during The Weeping Time, the largest slave sale in America held on March 2-3, 1859. The Weeping Time is considered by many a national disgrace. Scholar Hermina Glass-Hill has called Butler Island Plantation, “America’s Auschwitz.”

The Larger Implications:

This bill also leaves the other Heritage Preserve properties open to destruction, for example, Ossabaw Island. You can download a list of the properties threatened below. This list is from the Ossabaw Island Foundation, who gave the following details and caveats. The list is sorted by Senate District. Please note that this was created prior to the death of Jack Hill in April 2020, so he is still listed here. The Foundation has a high confidence in the data on this list. The property list originated from DNR, but they were told that prior to this year DNR did not have the list readily on hand. It was compiled earlier this year when the bill first surfaced.  The Ossabaw Island Foundation researched and added the senate information based on what we could find online regarding addresses, senate district information, county information, etc.

What You Can Do

  1. Sign this petition: Help Us Get a ‘No Vote’ on GA State House Bill 906 – ‘The Weeping Time’ Plantation Sale
  2. Call or email your state senators and tell them Georgians deserve to keep their heritage, no matter how difficult it is. Once public land is sold to private developers, it is lost forever. Find you state senator’s contact information via the state’s My Voter page or Openstates website.
  3. Share the petition and tell your friends about the situation.

Learn More:

Here is the Georgia Conservancy‘s explanation of the bill and the reasons behind it:

“House Bill 906, introduced by Rep. Darlene Taylor (R-173), seeks to amend methods of the conveyance of state heritage preserve properties. (Code Section 12-3-76). The Georgia Heritage Trust Program, established by the Heritage Trust Act of 1975, identified, acquired and protected “heritage areas” in Georgia that exhibited “unique natural characteristics, special historical significance, or particular recreational values.” Examples of heritage sites, areas, and preserves are Ossabaw Island State Heritage Area, Lewis Island Natural Area on the Altamaha, Lapham-Patterson House State Historic Site in Thomasville, Little Tybee Island, Pigeon Mountain WMA, and Wormsloe Historic Site, among others.

The changes sought would allow for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), upon approval of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Board, to remove (per property) a maximum of 15 acres from a state heritage preserve and convey fee simple title to “a willing county or local government or private entity”, with restrictions applicable to the property, including a perpetual conservation easement. State law currently defines the only allowed recipients of such fee simple titles as a willing county or local government.

The proposed amendment seeks to add “private entity” to this list, with “private entity” being defined as “any natural person, corporation, general partnership, limited liability company, limited partnership, joint venture, business trust, public benefit corporation, nonprofit entity, or other business entity.”

Additionally, the bill seeks to remove the Georgia General Assembly and the State Properties Commission from the conveyance approval process of properties “up to and including 15 acres”.

HB 906 has passed the full House and will now move to the Senate for consideration.

We understand the intent of HB 906 is to better ensure that DNR can properly and efficiently maintain structures on certain state properties.In reviewing this legislation, we have questions related to the definition of private entity and the terms of perpetual conservation easements in this context. We are assessing this bill and its provisions to ensure that the long-term conservation viability of state heritage areas is maintained.

You can also read the bill itself. And there is more information on the previously linked Change.org petition.

Over 336,000 acres of state-owned land are designated as Heritage Preserves. This represents 122 separate properties. The Heritage Preserve designation is the most stringent protection for state-owned land in Georgia. Coastal area Heritage Preserves include Ossabaw Island, Butler Island Plantation, Little Tybee Island, Wormsloe State Historic Site, Skidaway Island State Park, Altamaha Wildlife Management Area, Hofwyl-Broadfield Historic Site, Sapelo Island Wildlife Management Area, and St. Catherine’s Island Bar Natural Area.*

The Ossabaw Island Foundation, Georgia Conservancy, Patt Gunn with the Savannah Gallery on Slavery and Healing, and Hermina Glass-Hill with the Susie King Taylor Institute in Midway are all coordinating efforts to stop this bill. Donations and other support are welcome.

Butler Island Plantation specifics*:

It has been confirmed that the catalyst for HB 906 is a proposal by a private developer to purchase a portion of Butler Island Plantation in McIntosh County for redevelopment as a brewery/distillery. The Butler Island property is sacred to hundreds of people in coastal Georgia and across the state; especially to Gullah Geechee people and other African-American people who feel personal connectivity to the place as a homeplace.  It has been a gathering place in recent years for reunions for people who have traced their ancestry back to  African American people enslaved on this plantation. According to a petition on Change.org, archaeological radar has indicated that the site is filled with artifacts that will reveal untold information about the people who lived there, including possible human remains. A coalition has formed, GA Coalition to Save the Butler Island Plantation House, that is comprised of activists and historians and “Keepers of the Culture” in the Gullah-Geechee and statewide African-American communities.  They have a change.org petition online that has gained over 4,000 signatures in less than one week.

A house on the property was built in 1910 and is dilapidated. The house is intended to be restored for the distillery, and a barn on the property from the early 20th century is proposed for demolition.  The goal of the sale is to save the house; some are seeing the sale and redevelopment as an economic boon for McIntosh County. 

There are two issues here:

 Issue 1) Passage of HB 906. The bill in its current form threatens all of the Heritage Preserve lands in Georgia. If the HP designation is breached in any way, that is the beginning of the end of protection for 122 critical sites.

Issue 2)  Withdraw HB 906 and remove HP designation from Butler Island, then proceed with the sale. Even if HB 906 dies in its current form, it is still possible for the state to remove the HP designation for Butler Island, which would clear the way for this sale to continue.  This is an option that we have been told is being considered. 

Credits*:

Portions of this (particularly those with *) were taken directly from Ossabaw Island Foundation’s advocacy materials for this issue. Thanks to Robin Gunn for getting the word out to our regional museum community.