A new grassroots group seeks to support both the Bay St. Louis Historic District and the volunteer commission that oversees it.
- by Grace Wilson
The Bay St. Louis Historic District, created after Hurricane Katrina with the overwhelming support of property owners within its boundaries, helps preserve the city’s unique ambiance and charm. It’s overseen by a Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) made up of volunteers, each with experience in some relevant field – history, restoration, architecture, real estate and construction.
Now there's a grass-roots group to support both the district and the HPC, the Bay St. Louis Historic District Supporters (BSLHDS). It was started this spring by Ellis Anderson, publisher of the Shoofly Magazine.
Anderson served on the HPC for five years and was its co-chairman until May. She's also a board member of Mississippi Heritage Trust. Earlier this year, Anderson began hearing rumors of a behind-the-scenes effort by some elected officials to dissolve the HPC. When she began organizing a defense, she was abruptly dismissed from the HPC by the council.
The Supporters group is a continuation of her efforts to preserve the group that helps preserve the city. In the first few weeks after establishment, the group garnered 400 followers/members as word spread about its Facebook page (see BSL Historic District Supporters) and website.
The Bay St. Louis Historic District Supporters (BSLHDS) website calls historic Bay St. Louis the place “where good things come together.” The group connects the dots between economic development, quality of life and community heritage engendered by the district. There are no dues and no meetings. Information is relayed to members as threats to the district or positive news about the district occurs.
The website encourages citizens to attend the public meetings by posting the schedule and agendas. Basic information about the district itself is also made available so people can learn more about this valuable city asset.
“Property values in the historic district of Old Town Bay St. Louis are the highest and most desirable along the coast,” said Terie Velardi, a group member and a state certified appraiser. Velardi was also instrumental in helping create the district and served on the HPC for several years.
“Historic preservation is a significant component in support of property values and the character of Old Town,” said Velardi. “The blending of the old and thoughtful new development protects and enhances the interest and value of all properties.”
Lolly Rash agrees that new development can complement the historic district.
“By setting the bar high, you get better development,” Rash said. “Bay St. Louis is not a blank slate. It has a unique character. If you’re smart about developing, you are respectful of that fabric.”
The city charges the volunteers of the HPC to oversee all building within the district. Applicants for most building permits within the district also submit applications to the HPC. The HPC is an advisory board that meets monthly and oversees about 150 applications each year. New building projects – whether restorations or new construction within the district - are brought before the commission while they’re still in the planning phase.
At the monthly public meetings, the commission refers to the written, adopted design guidelines while inspecting the plans. The majority pass through without issue. A few are passed with stipulations.
On rare occasions, a property owner will disagree with the commission’s decision and appeal to the city council. In the past five years, only six property owners have opted to appeal the commission’s decisions.
The supporters’ website credits this less than one percent appeal record on the fact that the BSL HPC “has a long-standing reputation for ‘going by the book.’ Decisions are based on written guidelines adopted by the city, not politics or the personal preferences of commissioners.”
The BSLHDS website also points out that the Historic District Design Guidelines are akin to the covenants property owners must adhere to when they buy into upscale neighborhoods. Property values are protected from unsightly/inappropriate development, which offsets any minor inconvenience at having to apply for an additional permit.
While property values and economic development are the backbone benefits of historic preservation districts across the country, honoring community heritage plays a part as well.
Rash recalled post-Katrina Bay St. Louis as a place where residents were determined to preserve the remaining historic buildings that had survived the devastating hurricane (the city lost hundreds during the storm).
“I remember very vividly the lead-up to the original ordinances and how passionate the community was on these historic priorities,” Rash said. “But citizens need to continue to let elected officials know how important their community character is.”
She continued, “It can be discouraging when you feel like you don’t have a voice or you feel like you’re being dismissed, but you have to step up and stand for what you believe is important in your community.”