RETIRED school teacher Norman Luten Jr. is looking for work.
Unfortunately, the job that found him doesn’t pay, requires a politician’s face and is bound to make people upset.
“We have to be activists,” Luten says. “We have to form coalitions.”
Luten is taking over as president of the Sandfly Community Betterment Association. That’s an “uphill both ways” position if there ever there was one.
His task? Protect a historic residential neighborhood, already hollowed out by large commercial developments, from further losing its homey, woodsy identity.
“We have to reach out to other communities adjacent to us to help us voice our opinions against losing residential as well as green space,” Luten says.
The association lay dormant for several years. Its outgoing president, Herbert Kemp, was suffering from ill health and, he admits, was slow in asking for help as new threats arose.
One of those threats came very close to Luten’s little house on Skidaway Road. A proposed pharmacy next door would have elevated the area’s commercial blood pressure.
That was stopped. But another threat became reality when developers cleared a tree buffer on Montgomery Cross Road.
Now we all have a clear view of a Wal-Mart parking lot. And a McDonald’s is coming.
“Sandfly is in the process of change,” Kemp says. “We are for change if it’s compatible with the community. But some of these investments that are trying to be forced into the community are not in our best interests.”
Luten took me on a tour of Historic Sandfly. And it was quite a different view than what you get whizzing down the hamlet’s main roads.
Luten seemed to know every face at every house on every oddly-angled street.
“It’s a community where people know each other,” Luten says. “At one time, we used to have a whole lot of social interaction.”
That was when Sandfly was the promised land for freed slaves from Wormsloe Plantation. That was when a streetcar ran down Central Avenue. That was when there was a quiet, rural atmosphere.
“We can’t live in the past anymore,” Luten says. “We have to be able to blend the past, the present and also look out to the future to see where we’re going to be in the next half century.”
Association members believe they can do that by getting Chatham County to designate Sandfly a Historic District. If they’re successful, they’ll have a bit more protection against insulting architecture.
“If we’re not, then we are going to slowly dissipate and we might not be the community that we are right now,” Luten says.
Of course, a Historic District isn’t ironclad. Zoning is a separate ward of the zoo. (And zoning is a far bigger threat than architectural styles.)
Developers have ways of getting out of their cages. (See West River Street.) And the whole thing has to go before the County Commission.
But, Luten says, county officials seem to be listening.
“They listened when we started organizing and getting our neighborhood association back to where it once was,” Luten says.
“In order to get things done in any community, you have to be active.”
The process of getting a Historic District could take the better part of a year. And county planners only held the first public meeting a few weeks ago.
Luten says he was there at his new, unpaid job because of the “front porch education” that he got from his grandparents, parents and large, extended family in Sandfly.
Kemp, Luten’s former scout master, was in the front row.
“I’m just giving back to a community that has given me so much,” Luten says. “I’m just trying to do what my forefathers, parents, relatives and other people have done.”