"Decisions are made by those who show up," President Jed Bartlet tells some college students in a West Wing episode. Well, so are communities. And for her community of Scottsboro-Bells Bend, Minda Lazarov always showed up.
Lazarov, 56, who died Oct. 6 at her home deep in the Scottsboro woods, was a tireless presence at the dozens of public meetings — and many more private ones — on the future of Scottsboro-Bells Bend. She pushed hard to develop a positive "third" vision for the community and secured funding to publish the results. And she did so while waging the decades-long battle with cancer that would ultimately destroy her health.
Friends and neighbors remember Lazarov as a driving force behind the movement to preserve the area's rural character. She organized a trip to upstate New York to explore public/private preservation strategies for the Adirondacks and the agricultural lands of the Hudson Valley, and convinced Metro planners and greenways officials to go along.
But she made perhaps her biggest impact with her unrelenting resistance to May Town Center — the megadevelopment planned for Bells Bend, and the subject of a fight that came to symbolize the struggle between saving Middle Tennessee's uniqueness and pursuing development at any cost.
"When May Town was first proposed, I was looking for a way to compromise," says Scottsboro resident Keith Loiseau. "But not Minda. She had the greater vision of what Scottsboro could and should be, not just for the residents but also for all of Nashville. She realized that having an area so close to town still devoted to agricultural uses, offering great natural and cultural resources and recreation opportunities, makes the city unique."
Scottsboro, of which Bells Bend is a part, is tiny — 350 households. But it includes the largest remaining agricultural and forested landscape in Davidson County, encompassing 22,000 acres. The plan for May Town, first unveiled by property owner Jack May and master developer Tony Giarratana in February 2008, was for a virtual second downtown on 500 of those acres.
The proposal included 150 buildings with 10 million square feet of office space, 1.5 million square feet of commercial space and 5,000 residences. The projected workforce: 40,000 people. By way of comparison, downtown Nashville has approximately 7.1 million square feet of office space and 47,000 workers, while Cool Springs has 3.4 million square feet. The concept behind May Town was to make corporate executives as comfortable in Metro Nashville as they are in Williamson County.
But unlike Cool Springs, the May Town site plan was urban rather than suburban in design. The layout was in the manner of a traditional town, with a high-density core, a mixture of land uses and a green buffer of 900 acres surrounding the site. Metro's Planning Department staff supported the project, reasoning that it balanced economic development with some preservation.
Lazarov wasn't convinced. She likened the planners' rationale to the infamous statement by the officer in Vietnam: "It became necessary to destroy the town to save it."
"Minda felt strongly that once the camel's nose was under the tent, that's it," recalls Scottsboro resident and Lazarov's longtime friend Kathleen Wolff. "You can't prevent sprawl by creating a walled city. She thought the best way to approach the situation was to hold on to our vision."
That vision was articulated in Beaman Park to Bells Bend: A Community Conservation Project. The 192-page book, published in 2007, is an inventory of the natural and cultural resources of the area, with recommendations for preservation and controlled growth. Lazarov was instrumental in developing the project, raising funds for its production, assisting with research, fieldwork and writing. When it was finished, she personally shared copies with residents by dropping them in their mailboxes and then following up with phone calls.
"For Minda it wasn't NIMBYism," Wolff explains. "She fought hard to explain that we weren't opposed to any change. But the change should be compatible with the existing community character. The book was one way to set forth a positive alternative to conventional subdivision development — or a May Town."
In the summer of 2009, after more than a year of tumultuous meetings attended by hundreds of opponents and supporters, the Planning Commission voted against the zone change that would have enabled May Town. Lazarov was jubilant, but knew the work to save the bend and the larger community of Scottsboro would be ongoing.
"Just this month I met with Minda, at her request, to discuss how to move forward the positive vision for her community," says Jeanie Nelson, executive director of the Land Trust for Tennessee. "She was, as always, thoughtful, determined." Nelson recalls many such conversations: "When we'd just started the Land Trust, she and her husband Barry [Sulkin] were one of the first to invite me to their house, to discuss if their place was appropriate for a conservation easement."
Nelson says Lazarov was an exemplary citizen activist because "she put her heart and soul into it" and had the ability to convince others to do likewise.
"I go to conferences, and I learn things and come back to Nashville and make recommendations to people about possible courses of action," Nelson explains. "But it takes someone like Minda, with her quiet persistence, her unwillingness to be polarized, to get things done. And people just circled around her."
But while Lazarov's most notable preservation work involved conserving the area where she started her family — and lived for more than two decades — her influence has had a global reach.
Lazarov believed that what we eat has an enormous impact on health — a concern she developed at an early age, having been diagnosed with cancer at age 15. She ultimately became a nutritionist, and her professional career included government and nonprofit work primarily advocating for low-income families.
Lazarov served as a member of the U.S. Committee for UNICEF, and in that capacity she headed a global initiative to "establish optimal conditions to encourage women to breast-feed," as she told The Vegetarian Times back in 1994. The program involved giving qualifying hospitals special "baby-friendly" designations, and educating both the medical community and the public that breast-feeding is critical for babies. She believed that hospitals dispensing free infant formula in cases where there was no medical need wasn't in anyone's best interest — save for the formula manufacturers, against whom she once testified before Congress.
Fittingly, she served as director of the Maternal Infant Health Outreach Worker program at Vanderbilt, and also chaired a national committee charged with addressing the low rates of breast-feeding among women receiving public assistance. During her years at MIHOW, she expanded its service area to encompass harder-to-reach, low-income places with few resources.
Perhaps most impressively, Lazarov managed all this despite being sick with one grave illness or another from the time she was a teenager until her sudden death last week. In fact, her death was caused not by cancer directly but by a heart weakened from years of chemotherapy. Over the course of her life, she battled Hodgkin's lymphoma, breast cancer, a brain tumor and Epstein-Barr syndrome, though she did so with an uncommon grace that inspired her family and friends. It also meant she couldn't take time for granted.
"Minda was incredibly direct," Wolff says. "When people refer to her as 'kick-ass,' that's not an exaggeration. Over the last couple of years as her health declined, she had less patience for people not taking action when action was what was called for."
Robert Brandt, a founding board member of the Land Trust for Tennessee who, as a tribute to Lazarov, wore a "Bells Bend: Keep It Country" T-shirt to her funeral service, says her "debilitating illness would have sunk most of us, yet she always graced us with a smile and never missed an opportunity to pass on a funny story.
"If there was anything she couldn't do, I'm not aware of it. She was a visionary leader and superb organizer. She was a devoted mother and spouse. She was a great cook and a talented, creative seamstress. She could name all the trees and wildflowers in the woods and the birds in the air. She was a gifted writer as well."
Last year, Lazarov completed a manuscript whose working title is Whatever Happened to Patient 2410 (her identifying number from her teenage time at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital). It's a memoir that she felt especially driven to finish for her adult daughter, Shea.
In it, she wrote, without the slightest hint of self-pity, "The massive exposure to carcinogenic radiation and chemotherapy has combined forces with my body's genetically rooted lust for growing tumors — I'm a sitting duck. I am forced to acknowledge I may very well not be around next year."
As was her habit, Lazarov was right. But her legacy will survive for a long time to come. At her memorial service Monday at Congregation Micah, Rabbi Philip Rice referred to a poem he called "a script for Minda's life." Its title was "A Woman of Valor."
That was Minda Lazarov.
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