Reelection of Smithville mayor signals support for planned growth

SMITHVILLE, Mississippi – The question of whether this tiny community ravaged two years ago by a killer tornado is ready for land-use controls and an annexation strategy received an affirmative answer from voters Tuesday.

In a campaign seen as an up-or-down vote on his call for comprehensive land-use planning and the annexation of nearby unincorporated parts of Monroe County, incumbent Smithville Mayor Gregg Kennedy defeated opponent Holly Cooley with 161 votes to Cooley’s 49 in the town’s general election.

The victory gave Kennedy his fourth term as mayor. He has previously served three terms as an alderman and has been overseeing the rebuilding of the town after the tornado of April 27, 2011.

“We’ve got the blueprints and the funding to where we want to go,” Kennedy told the Monroe Journal after the vote counting, referring to the rebuilding.

“A lot of decisions had to be made and now we have to put all of our hard work into place. With all the federal and state agencies knowing what this election meant, everyone across the state was watching,” he told Amory-based Journal, Monroe County’s main newspaper.

Elected to the board of aldermen were Earl Wayne Cowley, 155 votes; Jimmy Dabbs, 131 votes; Johnny Snow, 131 votes; Jim Herren, 120 votes and incumbent Joyce Avery, 114 votes.

Others receiving votes were: incumbent Ruth Whitehead, 89 votes; Kim Johnson, 84 votes; Richard Alred, 66 votes; Byron Coker, 62 votes; and Sherrell C. Clark, 54 votes.

Smithville’s elected officials are expected to be sworn in at 2 p.m. June 27.

Kennedy received encouragement early in Tuesday’s voting when turnout in the morning and noon hours matched that typically seen between 3 p.m. and the 7 p.m. poll closings. Kennedy took the turnout as a clear indication he was headed for victory in his first election since an EF-5 tornado swept down Main Street, killing 16 people, destroying nearly half its homes and all but two of its businesses.

Kennedy, who works an early-morning-to-afternoon shift at a nearby factory,  has led the town’s rebuilding efforts and has steered the town toward implementing a comprehensive land-use plan. He said he sees the election as a “yes-or-no” vote on his hopes for guided growth, including zoning regulations that for the first time would set rules on where buildings can go and what uses for them would be allowed.

In an election day interview, Kennedy said opponent Colley’s promise was to seek to return Smithville to what it was before the EF-5 tornado. Kennedy called that approach a likely death sentence for the one-time town of 850 whose population dwindled by a couple hundred residents after the tornado.

Smithville mayor Greg Kennedy talks with a FEMA official about cleanup efforts in the aftermath of the 2011 tornado that devastated his town. (Photo by FEMA)

Smithville mayor Gregg Kennedy (left) talks with a FEMA official about cleanup efforts in the aftermath of the 2011 EF-5 tornado that devastated his town. (Photo by FEMA)

The town still lacks a grocery store but is home to a gleaming new K-12 school that will open in August. The school and the town’s new water well will position Smithville for growth, say the mayor and others involved in the long-range planning.

In the meantime, Kennedy and other town leaders are looking nearly 20 years ahead at the Smithville of 2030. A comprehensive land-use plan adopted for the one-time trading post in February is a blueprint of how land will be used over the next two decades.

The plan 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 Kennedy saw the adoption of the 20-year comprehensive land-use plan as a key accomplishment of a third term in which a slow revival has been underway since the tornado, with new houses and businesses replacing ones claimed that awful ay in late April 2011.

“It’s basically a road map to our future,” Kennedy said early this year.

Kennedy said the town 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, he 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 policy making.

“It’s been tough to get everybody to agree on a plan,” High said in a January interview. He attributed 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.

“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,” the planner added.

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.”

 

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