Smithville transitions from devastation to setting vision for future

by Ted Carter

Published: February 1,2013

Tags: Gregg Kennedy, severe weather, Smithville, tornadoes

smithvilleOn April 27, 2011, the people of Northeast Mississippi’s tiny farming town of Smithville could hardly see a future beyond the next 24 hours.

Today, the survivors of one of the deadliest tornadoes to strike Mississippi are looking nearly 20 years ahead at the Smithville of 2030. The one-time trading post has been framing a picture of its future as it rebuilds from the devastation of the EF-5 tornado that tore through Main Street on April 31 2011, killing 16 townspeople and destroying nearly half its homes and all but two of its businesses.

As could be expected, deciding how land will be used over the next two decades has not been without resistance in a region where the same land has customarily passed undisturbed from one generation to the next. The prospect of designating land uses can be unsettling for the folks who own the land, land planners say. Equally unsettling, they say, can be the prospect of encroachment of incompatible land uses.

Mayor Gregg Kennedy sees the expected adoption of a 20-year comprehensive land-use plan on Feb. 7 as a key accomplishment of a third term in which the town has seen the tragedy of nearly two years ago, followed by departure of a couple hundred residents and then a slow revival as new houses and businesses replace ones claimed by the tornado.

Kennedy sees the land-use plan giving Smithville the direction it had been lacking. “It’s basically a road map to our future,” he said in an interview last week.

Kennedy said the town — which had a pre-tornado population of about 850 people — has wanted to create a comprehensive land-use plan for years but could not afford the cost of the professional planning help it would require. That changed with a post-tornado grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission that covered the nearly $70,000 cost, Kennedy said.

While the plan will remain a loose blueprint until the town adopts a zoning map and ordinance based on the land-use features, it offers the immediate benefit of making Smithville eligible for infrastructure grants and for expansion through annexation.

The State of Mississippi requires incorporated communities to prepare and adopt comprehensive plans that address goals and objectives, housing, land use and public facilities. However, the state has not aggressively enforced the mandate, according to Craig High, a municipal planner with the regional engineering and strategic planning firm of Neel Schafer & Co.

Smithfield contracted with Neel Schafer & Co.’s Jackson office to help prepare the plan and guide the town in its land-use policymaking. High brought to the assignment his experience in helping his hometown of Biloxi come back from Katrina. Just as with Biloxi after Katrina, gaining a consensus on how and what to rebuild has not always been easy, High said.

“It’s been tough to get everybody to agree on a plan,” he added, attributing some of the friction to disagreements on where mobile homes and other low-cost housing will be allowed in a community that has seen insurance pay outs fund the placement of new, larger homes on expanded acreage.

The people who stayed and bought up surrounding lots and put houses on them “want compatibility,” High said.

They don’t see that with mobile homes on small lots, whether the homes are on wheels or affixed to a foundation, he added. “If you don’t want that trailer park to go back to where it use to be you have to do something different from having it come back.”

In the big picture, Smithville’s struggle will lie in “creating an identity,” he said.

“Because so many structures are gone” it’s almost like starting over in “deciding what you want it to look like.”

For instance, along the main roadways, do you want commercial and institutional buildings to be back off the road or near the road? High said.

“What I’d like to see them do is pull the buildings up and be 15 feet off the road with all the parking in the rear and landscaping in front,” he added.

For now, the town should wait to enact zoning ordinances based on the land-use designations in the comprehensive plan, High said.

Let consensus build over time, he advised. “There has been some difference of opinion. Some people are concerned about other people telling them what they can do with their property,” he said.

In the meantime, the community has sufficient cooperative spirit to make it unlikely “someone is going to put in stuff you don’t want,” High said.

What’s more, zoning administration and enforcement doesn’t come cheap, he noted. “Once you pass it you have to have a zoning administrator.”

He said he has advised Kennedy and the town aldermen to “take this slowly. Decide what you can afford to do. For now, they might be better off encouraging people to build in certain places. They may not be ready for zoning.”

Absence of zoning won’t prevent Smithville from expanding, though.

High and Mayor Kennedy do see a catalyst for growth in Smithville: a newly built K-12 school that will open in August.

“I think they’ve got a good thing with that school there,” High said, explaining the school gives Smithville an opportunity to build an image that it’s all about “education and having a good family atmosphere.”

That’s why the town can focus on annexation, he said.

Even now, you won’t find a house for sale in Smithville. Kennedy said. “What started this spirit is that people are seeing the school going up. People want their kids in the Smithville school.”

The town has a couple of other trump cards on the annexation front: water and sewer services.

A $460,000 sewage system reconditioning project starts next week that will stop groundwater from getting into the sewage system, according to Kennedy.

Smithville’s water well is about seven miles from town, making hookups convenient to landowners in the countryside.

A landowner outside the city must put in his own sanitary sewage system, an expensive proposition under current state environmental rules, he said. “Our real selling point is that the state requires 100 linear feet of field line for every bedroom in a house,” the mayor said, referring to the draining and leach fields necessary for a septic tank system.

“So if you have a four-bedroom house on a one-acre lot, you have to figure out how to put in 400 feet of field line. That’s almost impossible” without having a septic field scattered across the yard, he said.

On the other hand, the town can offer landowners the option of hooking up to its system, Kennedy noted. At the moment, the town has capacity for about 200 new homes and “350 if you count vacant homes from the tornado,” he said.

With the comprehensive plan in place, a modern new school set to open and plenty of water and sewer capacity to offer, Smithville is positioned to expand its borders.

Kennedy, who works a factory job outside Smithville and comes to the town hall on his way home each afternoon, wants to help guide Smithville’s expansion. For that to happen, he’ll need to win re-election on June 4, he said.

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