Preservation Victory in . . . Madison the County?

Chapel of the Cross by joseph a

Chapel of the Cross by joseph a

I know, I know, most people, including me, don’t equate the upscale suburban sprawl that is Madison County with preservation, but in fact, the preservationists who have banded together to protect the rural community of Mannsdale-Livingston, now being pulled into the orbit of Madison The City, have managed to fend off an attack by a county supervisor.

For those of you who haven’t been following the story, the Mannsdale-Livingston community was placed on the Mississippi Heritage Trust’s 10 Most Endangered List in 2007. At that time, the danger came from plans to widen Hwy 463 from its current 2-lane rural roadway to a four-lane highway. My purpose here is not to describe the community’s history or importance (you can find a summary at MHT’s website) but to talk a little strategery (you can get a fairly complete picture of the issue from the Madison County Herald (April 16 and May 24), Northside Sun (May 28) and a blog posting by county supervisor D.I. Smith, complete with interesting comments).

First, a little background. Out of the blue in April’s board of supervisor’s meeting, Tim Johnson, a county supervisor–whose district, interestingly, does not include Mannsdale–remarked that he had gotten complaints about the historic district from developers and that he wanted to discuss whether the district should be abolished at the next meeting. This was a surprise to everyone, except I suppose, the developers who had complained, or should I say the alleged developers who had allegedly complained? The district had been set up by the board of supervisors a few years ago as an overlay district to review proposed development in the area and makes recommendations (it is advisory only) to the zoning and planning board. At the May meeting, lots and lots of people showed up really ticked at Mr. Johnson whose “developers” were no-shows, and Johnson backed down pretty quickly.

This brings me to my comments (finally):

1.  Rural preservation is notoriously difficult because of the large amounts of land and sometimes esoteric concepts about “open space” and “landscape.” This is especially true in rapidly developing places like Madison County, where new subdivisions filled with very high-sloped roofs (and presumably houses underneath them) sprout up seemingly daily. So, the Mannsdale-Livingston preservation group is to be commended for recognizing the importance of their history and the nature of the threat early in the process and working to at least ameliorate the damage.

ii.  This seems like a classic story of nameless, faceless, rich people (it’s still not clear whether there were actual developers involved or if this was just a political power play) trying to circumvent a process that large numbers of actual residents put in place to control development in their area. These nameless people call their buddy on the board of supervisors (or board of aldermen or some other board with authority) and he raises a hue and cry about “obstructionism” and “standing in the way of progress” and “this is 2009.” You know what I always say: this has all happened before and will all happen again.

C.  And because it will happen again, we preservationists need to look closely at why this particular preservation battle ended with a tiny whimper on the part of the preservation-hostile board member.

  • The key to this whole success story, as I see it, is grassroots support and lots of it. This is why preservation commissions need to educate, educate, educate, not only the public officials (some of whom will not be willing to listen) but even more so residents and neighbors who can be mobilized to support you when the attacks come. Because they will come. If you’re not ready and you don’t have people willing to write letters to the editor, post comments on blogs, and actually show up at board meetings, you will get run over by even just a few people if they have money and power and are trying to throw their weight around.
  • The process of talking to residents should start well before a preservation ordinance is passed or a preservation commission is established–if you can’t get people interested at that point, maybe it’s best to take a step back and decide whether to proceed, because this is the easy stage and if people are blase about it when it’s easy, they surely won’t step up when things get tough.
  • Clearly, the Mannsdale-Livingston preservation commission worked through the steps of building its grassroots early on and has maintained ties to its constituents since then, so that in a very short period of time, they were able to mobilize them and defeat this attack that came out of left field. Given the development pressures (maybe not in this economy but presumably if and when it picks back up again), this will not be the last attack.

Congratulations to all who worked for this and here’s wishing the same success in the future!

Categories: Churches, Historic Preservation, Preservation Law/Local Commissions, Preservation People/Events, Urban/Rural Issues

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