Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Rape and Mutilation of the Natchez Waterfront

Natchez is about to lose her historic waterfront. We might soon see wall to wall development along the Waterfront Historic District, which is from Broadway to the River and from Madison Street south to the bridge. You thought one condo was bad? Try a whole row of 75 foot buildings blocking your access and your view of the river.

If, as expected, the proposed Development Code goes into effect, this is what owners of that property will have the right to build along our waterfront:

  • Casinos
  • Condominiums
  • Planned Unit Developments: a tract of land under single ownership that is planned and developed for commercial, retail, or office use
  • Liquor Stores
  • Restaurants
  • Auditoriums
  • Specialty retail stores
  • Barber or beauty shops
  • Art Galleries or Museums
  • Antique Stores

There will be no hearings about whether the citizens of Natchez want the development. There will be no recourse to the courts. The law will say they have the right to build these things.

Owners will still have to abide by building codes and planning & preservation guidelines, but the use of the land is not up for debate or discussion. So we may have historic condos, but we're going to get condos.

To make matters worse, this is what owners can build if they get the so-hard-to-get approval of the Mayor and Board of Aldermen:

  • Bars
  • Nightclubs
  • Brew Pubs
  • Offices
  • Resource Extractions: Extraction of minerals, ores, soils, and any other solid matter from its original location, including but not limited to quarrying, open pit, mining, drilling, tunneling, strip mining and any other such activities YIKES!

You may be thinking that much of the Bluff is public property and exempt from this. But the City has already sold public property to developers and has plans to sell more. So don't let that soothe you.

There was a hearing about the proposed Development yesterday before the Mayor and Board of Aldermen. Were you there? Probably not. What most people said was "Why bother to express an opinion before the Mayor and Board of Aldermen when they don't listen anyway." Good point! There were lots of people at the hearing but only two of us mentioned the Waterfront District. I'm sad to say most people have no idea what is about to happen.

What you can do now:

  • You could provide a written opinion to the Planning Director Dennis Story in City Hall by 5 pm Friday.
  • You can also attend the next meeting of the Planning Commission on Thursday, May 17 at 5 pm in the City Council Chambers. You will likely not be able to speak, but your presence will say a lot.
  • Vote in the poll on this site, so we can get an idea how citizens want our Bluffs developed - and ask your friends and neighbors to vote.

At its meeting, the Planning Commission is set to make changes based on the public hearing and send it on to the Mayor and Board of Aldermen for final approval on Tuesday, May 22.

If you don't want a 75 foot wall of buildings on the Bluffs, you'd better do something NOW!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Things Are Looking Up!

I don't want to be overly optimistic, but I'm starting to feel good about the demise of the condos on the Bluffs.

The potential developers of the condos, Larry Brown, and Ed Worley, got permission from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History many months ago to tear down the old Pecan Factory PROVIDING they followed certain very reasonable requirements. As we all know, those requirements were totally ignored, and they tore down the building without getting the required permit - and to add insult to injury, they did it while MDAH was meeting in Natchez. It would surprise me if there were not some angry people at MDAH. Most government agencies do not take kindly to having their laws ignored.

You have to hand it to Worley Brown - they definitely have balls. They wait a couple of months and apply for a permit to build the condos. I guess they think MDAH is just a bunch of wimps they can ignore and intimidate. The Permit Committee met a couple of weeks ago and recommended some very restrictive requirements. For details, see this article in the Natchez Democrat. I especially love the quote from Larry Brown.

“I briefly talked to my attorney, and he said it was all right. He said the conditions were pretty standard and nothing out of the ordinary.”

Yeah, right, Larry.

This past Friday, the MDAH Board of Trustees, who has final authority, met to consider the recommendations of their Permit Committee. Gwen Ball and several other Natchezians attended that meeting and made a very professional presentation about their many concerns. (See this article in the Democrat.) The Board said they had to take it under advisement until their next meeting, which is not until July. So we get another three months breathing room. (And don't forget, there's still the lawsuit hanging over their heads.) Of course, Larry Brown is still in a state of denial.

“Based on questions some of the board members asked, they seemed confused. They elected to take some time to get more information and talk at their next meeting."

The Board of Trustees is confused? I don't think so.

Larry, give it up. You're never going to get these condos. They were a stupid idea to begin with, and you're getting stupider by the minute.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Preservation Follies

In addition to the Board of Aldermen meetings, I've also been trying to attend the Planning and Preservation Commissions' meetings. Tonight I went to the Preservation Commission meeting and really got an earful. Judge Al Johnson owns a house on Clifton Avenue on the bluffs above the river, right smack dab in the middle of the Historic District. He apparently decided to build a fence and didn't bother to obtain the appropriate permissions and permits. He could plead ignorance, but he is, after all, a judge. Aren't judges supposed to know the law? A neighbor informed his son that a permit was needed, but the neighbor was ignored and called a name. Someone apparently informed the authorities, and the Judge was before the Planning Commission trying to get after the fact permission.

Not only did he build it without appropriate permission, but the fence didn't even conform to the guidelines. He asked the Commission to approve his application anyway. He said it was similar to a fence at his neighbors. However, his neighbor's fence was built before the guidelines were in place. There were neighbors there testifying about how the fence was nonconforming, but the best testimony was given by Gwen Ball, of condo fame. She said the issue was a matter of enforcement, especially in these times. The guidelines are a part of the law, and the Commission's job is to enforce those guidelines. She said she expected that a judge, whose job it is to enforce the law, would willingly abide by the rules. Hmmm - is this another case where an elected official thinks he is above the law?

It is the Commission's responsibility simply to determine if an application meets the standards of the guidelines. It was obvious this one did not. Although the Commissioners were in agreement about their decision, a motion was made to approve the application, since that's the proper procedure. However, the motion died for lack of a second. Judge Johnson was visibly angry as he stormed out of the room.

I'm wondering if he will appeal the decision to the Mayor and Board of Aldermen, which he has the right to do. And I wonder how the Board will vote. Will they vote to uphold the law, or will they vote that the Judge should be treated differently from anyone else? This is the same Judge that ruled in favor of the City on the condo issue - as well as the Fat Mama's zoning decision. But of course, that has nothing to do with anything.

UPDATE: In case you missed it in the Legals section of the paper, there has been a special meeting of the Preservation Commission called to deal with this issue again! It will be Monday, April 23 at 5:15 pm in the City Council Chamber. Should be very interesting!

UPDATE 2: Preservation Commission decisions regarding private property must be appealed to the Circuit Court. Apparently, the Judge was so upset about having to follow the law that he threatened to go to Court - oops, I thought he was the Court. Oh well, this is Natchez.

It seems that the fine print somewhere says if no action is taken on an application by the Preservation Commission within 60 days, the application is deemed approved. Since the Commission failed to approve the Judge's application but did not deny it, this might be considered a lack of action on the application. So the Commission had to have the special meeting to be sure their decision was made properly. This time, they approved the application with conditions - basically that the fence be changed to conform to the guidelines. The Commission also entered into the record a notebook provided by the Historic Natchez Foundation on guidelines for historic fences. (Remember, they have to worry about going to Court.)

No word yet on whether the Judge will abide by the conditions or continue with his appeal to the Court.

To make matters even more interesting, the Judge owns another house on Commerce Street, also in the Historic Distric, where a similar fence has been installed. Wonder if anything will happen with that fence.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Here We Go Again - Mississippi at the Bottom

Mississippi has the highest tax on food in the country (most don't tax it at all), even though we're one of the poorest states. In addition, we have one of the lowest taxes on cigarettes, while we also have one of the highest rates of cigarette related deaths. Does this make sense to you? It sure doesn't to me. So why is this?

For two years in a row, the Mississippi Legislature has tried to change this situation by lowering the tax on food and making up the lost revenue by increasing the tax on cigarettes. Not only does this make logical sense, but it is extremely popular in an election year. Should be a no brainer, right? Not if you're Republican Governor Haley Barbour. He is the ONLY reason the Legislature did not pass this bill. The bill passed the House overwhelmingly and has wide spread bipartisan support in the Senate. However, the Governor promised to veto it, and the Legislature was just shy of enough to override it.

(By the way, all of our local legislators except Republican Representative and Barbour toady Sam Mims, supported the bill.)

Barbour was elected to represent the people of Mississippi, but he seems to have forgotten that. He is much more interested in protecting his friends in Washington. Before becoming Governor, he was a partner in what was the most influential lobbying firm in Washington DC, and he represented all the major tobacco companies. Obviously, they are more important to him than we are.

Does Barbour admit this is why he's against this bill? Of course not. He has two reasons for opposing the bill . Not only are they both ridiculous, but they contradict each other.

  1. He'll veto it because he promised in his campaign he would not increase taxes. Of course, he has no problem proposing other taxes, like a tax on hospitals - but he calls that an "assessment", not a tax! Well, how about we have an "assessment" on cigarettes.
  2. He'll veto it because we can't afford a tax cut because of the effect of Katrina. Yeah, right.

Sorry Governor, but you can't have it both ways. Is it a tax cut or a tax increase? Actually, it's neither. It's a tax swap. It was specifically designed to be revenue neutral. There is no reason to oppose this legislation - unless, of course, you're in bed with the tobacco companies.

This is such egregious behavior by our Governor, that it's made the New York Times.

"Gov. Haley Barbour, a former tobacco lobbyist, has other ideas. Studies, polls, protests at the Capitol, legislative sentiment and America’s highest cardiovascular disease rate notwithstanding, the governor of the poorest state is not budging, for the second year in a row: no cut in the 7 percent grocery tax and no increase in the 18-cents-a-pack third-lowest-in-the-nation, cigarette tax. Mr. Barbour, the former Republican National Committee chairman and big-time Washington lobbyist whose clients included the five major tobacco companies, is a busy man these days, and a powerful governor. . . (The veto), to some, is a true measure of Mr. Barbour’s power. He need not worry about political fallout from rejecting what is, in most reckonings, a popular initiative. "

Do you see that? He doesn't have to worry about us, the citizens of Mississippi. Do you know why? He thinks we're too stupid to figure it out. I guess we'll find out in November if we are.