Corinth and the Limitations of the MDAH

This is the second of two posts on Corinth regarding this situation; the first post was published yesterday.

Corinth, a place apart from the rest of Mississippi, on the periphery, in the corner, in the farthest reaches. Corinth is Pluto, and Jackson is the Sun. In some ways, Corinth is not a part of Mississippi, which explains the state’s apathy, indifference, disregard for the northeast corner. Corinth’s ties, historically, are with Alabama and Tennessee, not with the rest of Mississippi. The town was founded as an early railroad town. Corinth’s business was industry, not agriculture, long before the rest of Mississippi realized that cotton should not be king. However, it is in Corinth, perhaps appropriately, that one can examine the limitations of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, that statewide agency so vital to the preservation movement in Mississippi.

In yesterday’s post, “This is Not Historic: Corinth’s Reclassification of a Historic District,” I detailed the worrying move by the Corinth Board of Aldermen and the city building inspector, Philip Verdung, to remove four blocks of historic buildings from the Corinth Local Historic District (two blocks of which are in the National Register-listed Downtown Corinth Historic District). I also stated that all that is required to remove the area from the local preservation district is a written response from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH). Merely a written response, not approval and Corinth did get a response. The response came from Michelle Jones, Local Preservation Assistance Coordinator for MDAH. Access to public records in Mississippi is a tricky issue; however, I was easily able to contact Michelle Jones, who upon my request last week provided me with a copy of the letter she sent to the City of Corinth. Here is the body of that letter:

According to Section VI. F. of the Corinth Preservation Ordinance:
No preservation district or districts shall be designated until the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, acting through such agent or employee as may be designated by its director, shall have made an analysis of and recommendations concerning, the proposed district boundaries.  Failure of the department to submit its analysis and recommendations to the city within sixty days after a written request for such analysis has been mailed to it shall relieve the city of any responsibility for awaiting such analysis; and the city may at any time thereafter take any necessary action to adopt or amend its ordinance.

Thankfully the mail delay and my travel did not prevent me from responding within the sixty days of the October 1, 2010 date of your request. However, in the packet I do notice that public notice of the public hearing began on September 26 with the public hearing to be held on October 19, 2010, well within the 60 days beginning October 1 required by the ordinance that MDAH be allowed to comment.

As the ordinance states, the city is required to make MDAH aware of any changes to a local district and give it time to make an analysis and recommendations to the city.  Although the city is required to request this information, it is not charged to follow those recommendations per the ordinance.

I have had several phone and email conversations with the City of Corinth’s engineer Philip Verdung about the proposed decrease of the Corinth Local Historic District. I have also discussed the matter with Corinth Preservation Commission Chair Claire Stanley.

While Mr. Verdung has been persuasive in his argument that the preservation ordinance has had 15+ years to spark reinvestment and renovation of the properties south of the railroad tracks in downtown Corinth, I have seen many buildings sit much longer and finally have substantial reinvestment that changed an entire region of the city.  The recently renovated King Edward in Jackson comes most directly to mind, but there are other examples throughout the state and country.

Furthermore, although I understand that this is a public policy decision being promoted by the city, rather than individuals, I am concerned that in the future, other sections of the local historic district will come under the same scrutiny and given a similar state of disrepair or demolition by neglect as the properties in these four partial blocks, the city will have no choice, given this precedent, but to also omit them from the local historic district.

Although Mr. Verdung and I have discussed it at length, I am also unsure of what exactly is gained by moving the buildings from the local historic district into another design regulating body.  Section XIII Public Safety Exclusion gives the city building official the ability to concur with the property owner that the building cannot be repaired or restored.  If the CHPC does not agree it can seek outside professional expertise from the SHPO (MDAH) before issuing the CoA for demolition. However, the CHPC has the option to agree with the city’s recommendation.

So in an attempt to be concise, I do not see the overriding benefits that will result from the decrease of the local historic district and it would be my recommendation for the successful continued policy of preservation in Corinth that these blocks not be removed from the local historic district.

This letter reveals, to those not already acquainted with the issue, the severe limitations to MDAH’s power over local preservation concerns. Tip O’Neill stated that “All politics is local.” Well, I state that “All preservation is local.” Yet, MDAH has little to no authority over local preservation matters.

The four blocks of historic buildings in question are unequivocally historic. However, the statewide agency in charge of preserving historic structures, cannot preserve these historic structures. Michelle Jones’s reply cannot be considered an approval of the City of Corinth’s actions by anyone, unless that person did not read the letter. Yet, Corinth received the written response as prescribed by law and can proceed to remove the four blocks from the historic district at their discretion. According to the November 3 article of the Daily Corinthian, the new Board of Aldermen “tabled consideration of the proposed rezoning of a portion of the central business district.” I have not managed to locate any more recent news on the issue in the Daily Corinthian but now the issue is entirely in the hands of the Corinth Board of Aldermen.

This post and this issue are about more than four blocks of the historic, post-industrial landscape of Corinth. This issue goes to the very core of preservation in Mississippi. How can preservationists work to save the historic fabric of Mississippi when government agencies either cannot save historic buildings or will not? Which one of us has the answer to that question?

All that I know is that I haven’t got a clue as to how to solve that puzzle.

Categories: Corinth, Historic Preservation, MS Dept. of Archives and History

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