By STEVEN NALLEY
A representative from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History fielded questions from an audience of more than 20 at a public hearing on downtown Starkville's nomination for the National Register of Historic Places at the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum Monday.
Bill Gatlin, national register coordinator with MDAH, gave a presentation detailing what it would mean for Starkville to join the NRHP followed by a question-and-answer session.
Gatlin said the NRHP's regulations only come into play if building owners seek tax credits on alterations. It also compels the federal government to consider any impact its activities might have on properties within historic districts, he said. For instance, if the federal government wanted to expand Main Street to four lanes, he said the NRHP would not stop it, but it would force the federal government to evaluate the project's impact on historic buildings.
The NRHP does not require property owners to seek prior approval to alter or even demolish their property, Gatlin said. It also does not impose an affirmative duty to maintain property or to open the property to the public, he said.
"If you want to paint it purple, you can paint it purple," Gatlin said. "If you want to tear the building down, you can tear the building down. You don't have to ask permission."
Gatlin also explained the NRHP process. He said the Mississippi Historic Preservation Professional Review Board will determine whether the nomination advances to the national level for approval on May 17, and any building owners who want to object to the nomination must send their objections in writing to MDAH before May 17. Each owner has one vote, he said, even if they own more than one property, but if 50 percent plus one of the owners object, the district will not be listed.
"If you object, you need to file the written objection." Gatlin said. "Saying nothing is essentially a 'yes' vote."
During the presentation, Tom Walker, a commissioner on the Starkville Historic Preservation Commission, asked if it was logical for local governments to add national historic districts to their own register of local historic districts. Gatlin repeatedly said the process Walker described was not automatic.
Walker said, "It is not automatic, but is it logical?"
Gatlin said, "There are lots and lots of communities that have national register districts that are not local. It is not a logical assumption that because you will do one you will do the other. That will be another discussion. Your city council will make that decision."
When the time came for the questions and answers, several in the audience continued to ask questions about national districts and local districts. Speaking on behalf of First Baptist Church, Dora Herring read a memo from FBC asking MDAH to exempt a specific area from the district.
"We are requesting that the area... bordered on the west by Washington Street, on the east by Jackson Street, on the north by Lampkin Street and on the south by the railroad be omitted from the currently planned downtown historic district designation," Herring said.
First Baptist Church either owns or is in negotiations to own much of this property, Herring said, and five of six buildings it is currently tearing down or moving are currently identified as contributing to the district.
"They'll be gone by the fall," Herring said. "... This property is old and not logical to be economically feasible for full renewal," Herring said. "We believe that none of our development and growth being done now and planned in the future is compatible to a historic district, because this entire area will be parking or new buildings."
Gatlin said joining the NRHP will not prevent any of the FBC activities Herring described, but Herring said she was still concerned about a local district changing that. Gatlin said a local district does not have to share the same boundaries as a national district, so when the local district goes before the board of aldermen, she will have an opportunity to ask the city to exempt FBC properties from the local district even if they are already part of the national district.
"You'll get plenty of opportunity to discuss (a local historic district) before it happens," Gatlin said. "Aldermen are politicians; they want to get re-elected."
Dan Moreland, owner of several Starkville businesses and rental properties, promptly replied, eliciting some laughter.
"Apparently, you're not familiar with Starkville," Moreland said.
Another member of the audience, Phil Hartness, asked Gatlin if there was a way to get out of membership in the NRHP once it has been established. He said he was concerned about what would happen if the federal government changed NRHP regulations in the future.
"If they change the rules of the game," Hartness asked, "how do you get out of it?"