History is not always black and white, especially where legal matters and corporations are concerned. In Vincent, the question of what constitutes historical significance has come to the forefront of an issue concerning White Rock Quarries’ proposed 886-acre limestone quarry that some of Vincent’s residents have strongly opposed.
One of those residents is Anne Gibbons, an attorney who owns property in Vincent. During the long process of White Rock acquiring the land and permits for the project, Gibbons filed a lawsuit on Feb. 26, 2010 claiming that the Town of Vincent did not go through the proper channels when rezoning the land for the proposed quarry.
In December of 2011, after Shelby County Circuit Judge Hub Harrington ruled in favor of the Town of Vincent, Gibbons appealed her case to the Alabama Supreme Court, which, a year later, also ruled in favor of the town of Vincent and White Rock, accepting the argument that they had properly annexed land in question.
But still, Gibbons argues that the out-of-state quarry company does not care about the people of Vincent or the history of the area — her lifelong home.
Gibbons, along with David Schneider, the former executive director of the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation, have nominated five sites in the Arkwright Historic District in Vincent to the National Historic Register (NHR).
On July 31, the NHR accepted the nomination and listed the sites as eligible. However, since the majority of the landowners did not sign off on the historical designation, historic markers cannot be placed on the site.
Gibbons said she feels “vindicated” by the NHR deeming the site eligible, but still is upset that the markers will not be placed because the landowners were opposed. According to Gibbons, she believes that the landowners are being pressured by White Rock to deny the historic markers being placed on their land.
“In spite of knowledge of 13 historical sites located either on, adjacent to, or very close to its property, [White Rock’s] public comments denied presence of anything of historical significance,” Gibbons said, referencing comments made earlier this year at a public hearing by Jim Hurley, the president of White Rock Quarries.
The sites that Gibbons and Schneider nominated to the NHR are the remnants of the old railroad community that once made up the small hamlet that would eventually become Vincent. Many of those early settlers stayed in the area along with freed slaves who once worked on plantations.
The River Loop — a portion of Vincent that will eventually, in part, become the Vincent Hills Quarry — is populated by many of the descendants of freed slaves and railroad workers.
Schneider, who has worked in historical preservation for 33 years, said he is “qualified to make these determinations” about what constitutes historical integrity.
He admits that even though the area has been neglected and some of the structures are damaged, “what’s left certainly qualifies for the historical register.”
As for White Rock’s handling of the historic sites that are on their property — which are not part of the recent nomination for the NHR — Gibbons said that the Florida-based company obviously does not care about the history of her hometown.
“[White Rock] did acknowledge the presence of a cemetery and an antebellum house site on White Rock’s property, but sloughed them off,” Gibbons said. “White Rock cares nothing about the people of Alabama or their history.”
Rob Fowler, an attorney with Balch and Bingham, who represent White Rock Quarries, called Gibbon’s accusations “absolutely absurd.”
White Rock has been outspoken against the Arkwright Historical District’s nomination to the NHR. In a letter that Fowler wrote to the Alabama Historical Commission, he states that the site “lacks integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association.”
However, Schneider, who was present for the site visit by the Alabama Review Board that would eventually nominate Arkwright to the NHR, said that, “The lawyers can say what they want, and I’m sure they are all smart guys — they have law degrees — but the national park service agrees that this place is historically significant.”
Fowler was asked why White Rock was against having these sites nominated to the historic register. “They were opposed because they believe that the sites don’t meet the criteria,” Fowler said.
“There were three sites listed on White Rock’s property on the Alabama Historical Registry. White Rock hired a team from the University of Alabama to investigate. One of the sites was believed to be a cemetery. The team confirmed this and White Rock is going to avoid this site. Another site is an old well and they have redesigned the project to avoid this area,” Fowler said, although these sites are not related to the Arkwright Historic District.
He went on to say that, “History is important and White Rock recognizes that. That’s why the projects were redesigned to preserve the sites.”
Despite White Rock’s stance on the historical significance of Arkwright, the Alabama Historical Commission voted unanimously to nominate the site for the NHR.
Lee Anne Wofford, the director of historic preservation with the Alabama Historical Commission, confirms the notion that the Arkwright district in Vincent does meet the criteria for the NHR. However, since the majority of the landowners were opposed, the sites can only be listed as “eligible” unless the landowners approve the markers being placed on their land.
“The park service determined that Arkwright was eligible to be listed, but the majority of the landowners objected. So therefore it could not be listed as anything other than eligible,” Wofford said.
The landowners in question are CSX Railroad, Norfolk Southern Railroad, Vandiver Steel Fabrication and two private homeowners. Only one of the landowners could be reached for comment.
Chris Coggin, who owns a house on the land that Gibbons nominated for the NHR, says that he is in favor of the historical designation.
“Yeah, I’m for it,” Coggin said. “I was contacted by an attorney with White Rock asking if I was for it, which I was. That was it. There wasn’t any pressure or anything,” Coggin explained, contradicting Gibbons’ argument that White Rock was pressuring the landowners to deny the markers being placed.
In April, however, the Alabama Review Board for the NHR held a hearing for the property owners to comment on the nomination of the five sites in Arkwright.
Gibbons provided a letter she wrote to Susan Enzweiler, the National Register coordinator, dated May 29, 2014, several weeks after the hearing. In the letter Gibbons outlined what she describes as an “inaccurate testimony” by an attorney representing White Rock and two of the landowners that were opposed to the historical markers being placed on their land: CSX Railroad and Norfolk Southern Railroad.
“White Rock Quarries, a non-owner, was represented by attorney Jim Noles of Balch and Bingham located in Birmingham, Alabama, who represented himself as counsel for CSX Railroad and Norfolk Southern Railroad, as well,” Gibbons wrote. Numerous efforts to reach Noles for a comment went unanswered.
Gibbons also provided a copy of Fowler’s letter to the Alabama Historical Commission, which lists reasons why he contends the Arkwright site lacks historical integrity. He also mentions that White Rock has legal interests in the historical designation of the Arkwright district.
The letter, which is also addressed to Susan Enzweiler, states, “Because White Rock’s property borders both the CSX and Norfolk Southern Rail lines, specifically the portion being nominated for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, it has legal interests in this nomination. Nevertheless, the proposed quarry has encountered opposition in some quarters. That opposition includes Ms. Anne Gibbons, who nominated the ‘Arkwright Historic District’ for inclusion on the NRHP.”
Fowler’s letter goes on to mention that Gibbons has had a long history of opposition to the Vincent Hills Quarry project, referencing her lawsuit against the Town of Vincent that she appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court.
Despite the Alabama Supreme Court upholding the decision, “[Gibbons’] opposition to the quarry has continued,” the letter states, mentioning her critical comments at the Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s public hearing in March regarding the quarry’s air and water permit applications.
Fowler continued by saying, “Interestingly, Ms. Gibbons — who is a self-professed long-time resident of the Arkwright vicinity — seems to have only begun pursuing the NRHP designation for Arkwright after encountering legal obstacles and defeats in her campaign to prevent the quarry from locating near her property. Thus, one might argue that, if Ms. Gibbons’ motivations with respect to this nomination were truly focused on obtaining NRHP recognition for Arkwright, she would have pursued such recognition at some point within the past forty years.”
Gibbons laughed at this accusation. “I can’t believe they are saying I’m not interested in the history of this area — something I wrote my thesis on, and a place I have lived my whole life,” Gibbons said. “From my childhood I can remember remnants of that town and it has always intrigued me. I contacted the Alabama Historical Commission for inclusion on the Alabama record, and they created the Arkwright heritage area.”
She argues that the reason White Rock is opposed to the historical designation is because, “They’re afraid it’s going to prevent the quarry from being put there.”
On the other side of the legal spectrum, Fowler contends that the parties seeking historical legitimacy for Arkwright “are saying that because they are opposed to the plans for the quarry.”
Nonetheless, even in the face of staunch opposition and legal defeats, Gibbons remains resolute in her pursuit for historical preservation in Vincent.
“I remember playing in the river down by Buzzard Island when I was a little girl. That’s one of my favorite spots in the world,” Gibbons said.
“White Rock, a company from Florida, doesn’t acknowledge that there is anything there of any consequence. They have said over and over there was nothing there. Well I knew there was,” Gibbons said, “And although they say that, the National Historic Register has said that Arkwright is eligible. So to deny its existence, to me, just shows what they think of the people in this area — that they don’t amount to a thing.”