Lancaster Civil Engineering

Demystifying historical and archaeological clearances – Part I

Few things strike fear into the heart of an owner or project manager as much as finding out that their building site has potential for containing “significant cultural resources”. Let’s talk about what that means for your project…


It all begins with the feds…and no, it wasn’t Obama’s fault. Back in 1966 something called the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) was enacted into law (so it looks like it was LBJ’s fault). Section 106 of this Act requires that Federal agencies identify those “significant cultural resources” that might be affected by their actions. (Trivia question: What did Section 101 of this Act establish? Hint: Section 101 doesn’t quite make developers sweat like Section 106 does.)

Federal agencies such as the National Park Service and the Army Corps of Engineers have their own building projects so they need to follow this law when they construct projects. But federal agencies also give out grants for local projects and issues permits, licenses and approvals as well. Some of these permits are administered through State agencies such as DEP and PennDOT, so there are a wide range of “federal actions” that could require Section 106 clearances. The Pennsylvania History Code also requires that State actions be reviewed…

Alphabet soup

But these agencies need local help to understand all the effects of their actions. So in PA, the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) is the one who is responsible for helping the federal agency by providing comments and advising the feds on the effects of the proposed work. The SHPO is the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) – and his responsibilities are fulfilled by the Bureau for Historic Preservation (BHP). So essentially, the BHP serves as the SHPO. Oh my word…I’m so sorry about all the acronyms.

Oh, this soup is too hot!

Where was I? Oh yes…the BHP. They’re going to assist these state and federal agencies by taking a look at your project and letting the agency know what effects their actions will have on significant cultural resources. If there are impacts, the BHP also helps figure out how to address and resolve those effects. Now here’s where the rubber meets the road. We’ll need to submit some preliminary info to BHP about what the project looks like and then they’ll review their databases to determine if there’s anything nearby that they’ve looked at before. The BHP looks at two types of issues – historical structures and archaeological resources (basically above ground vs. below ground.) Then they’ll comment with one of three responses:

  1. there are no recorded historical/archaeological sites nearby and none are expected (hurray!)
  2. recorded sites ARE located nearby and some are expected at your location (oh well…)
  3. no sites are nearby but still, we think there’s a high probability that sites exist (oh well again…)

A little leaven

If we get either response #2 or response #3, then BHP is going to ask us to do a little more work to make sure we’re not hurting anything valuable to the community. We’ll talk about that “little more work” in a future post. (For some of you, it’s been all you can do just to get to the end of this article – and I congratulate you.) Despite all the legislation and the cryptic acronyms, what you really need to remember is this – if your project has even a SMIDGE of federal involvement (funding, permits, approvals) then we’ll need to contact the PHMC. They’ll let us know if we have historical or archaeological resources that we need to take a closer look at.

More than just a silver lining

Also keep in mind, if you’re planning to do a great community project then part of me WANTS you to do it in a location with a great story that can be used in the design and experienced by the users. So just because someone’s forcing us to jump through some legislative hoops, let’s not forget the opportunities that sites of historical and archaeological significance can provide to your project. If done correctly, it can benefit your users and the community as well as become something that you’re infinitely more proud of.

Ben Craddock

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Whether you work for a municipality or you’re just looking to build in Lancaster County, we’re looking forward to working with you on your next big project.