Monday, October 10, 2011

Remembering Minda Lazarov, Bells Bend Advocate and Devoted Community Activist

Posted By on Mon, Oct 10, 2011 at 3:55 PM

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“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 Nashville home, showed up for the dozens of public meetings — and many more private ones — on the future of Scottsboro-Bells Bend. She was a driving force behind the movement to preserve the area’s rural character. She pushed hard to develop a positive vision for the community and secured funding to publish the results. And she did so despite a long, courageous and clear-eyed fight against cancer, which she battled for much of her life.

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 got Metro planners and greenways officials to go along. And Lazarov was unrelenting in her resistance to the mega-development known as May Town Center planned for Bells Band.

“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 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 features the largest remaining agricultural and forested landscape in Davidson County, some 22,000 acres.

The plan for May Town, first unveiled by property owner Jack May and master developer Tony Giarratana in February of 2008, was for a virtual second downtown on 500 of those acres in Bells Bend. The development 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.

Unlike Cool Springs, however, 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 rural preservation. Lazarov likened the planners’ rationale to the infamous statement by the commander in Vietnam: “We had to destroy the village in order 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.”

The “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 one of the movers behind the book, raising funds for its production, assisting with research, fieldwork and writing.

“For Minda it wasn’t NIMBYism,” Wolff says. “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 that 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.”

A longer tribute will follow in this week's Scene.

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