Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Appeals Hearings Very Interesting

At last night's marathan session of the Mayor & Board of Aldermen (BOA), there were two appeal hearings based on decisions by the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA).

In the first case, the BZA refused to grant a variance to Rev George Marshall who wanted to open a business (funeral parlor) in a residential district. Rev Marshall’s main argument was that there are already businesses in the district. Dennis Story, the new Planning Director, presented the case for the BZA, and he did an excellent job of highlighting the facts of the case. He said it was true there were businesses there now and that previous Boards must have approved those variances. But he argued for abiding by the law, which was clear. He said, at some point, you have to draw the line – and stop granting variances that are not within the confines of the City’s zoning ordinances. Aldermen Grey and Mathis voted in favor of Rev Marshall, Aldermen West recused himself (presumably because he owns a funeral parlor), and Aldermen Pollard, Massey, and Middleton voted to uphold the decision of the Board.

When the Planning Director got ready to present the case for the second hearing, the Mayor asked him to be brief. As instructed, Story was very brief, and therefore the case was not properly made for the BZA's decision, which in this case was to grant a variance to Cliff McCarstle to build a residence in a business district. Eva Dunkley did a good job of presenting a case for overturning the BZA's decision, based on the just completed action of the BOA - you must uphold the law. However, after a lot of discussion, the reasons for the BZA's decision eventually were made clear. Under the new proposed Development Plan, the district will be zoned residential. McCarstle said he could just wait a month. However, the reason he decided to go ahead and ask was that he was just moving an old house to the new location, and Mr Blankenstein, the person owning the land with the house on it, needed to get it moved quickly. Mr Blankenstein needed the property to make up for the space he lost (which I think is the pecan factory). The BOA voted again to uphold the decision of the Zoning Board. It seems to me the Mayor could have saved a lot of time, if he had simply allowed the Planning Director to present his case to begin with.

At some point during these hearings, one of the Aldermen mentioned discussing the issue in the private meeting they had before the public meeting.. (Watch closely when it comes on TV.) Perhaps they had made up their minds about these decisions before they came out – which may be why the Mayor told the Planning Director to be brief. Gee, I thought we had an Open Meetings Law in Mississippi that forbids closed door discussions, except in very limited circumstances. But I guess the law doesn’t apply in Natchez.

Probably the most unbelievable thing the BOA did during this meeting was to pass a motion by Alderwoman Mathis to require minutes of all future meetings be taken down verbatim. There were jokes about hiring new staff and killing trees, but they passed it! What a waste of taxpayor dollars. They may live to regret that vote - for several reasons.

The public hearing for the proposed City Development Plan is Tuesday, April 24 - mark your calendars.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Natchez Comprehensive Plan Is Important!

Last Thursday, I wrote an article about the new Comprehensive Plan being proposed for Natchez, in which I outlined the history of this project. I want to emphasize how important this plan is - because it determines the future of development in Natchez. The Natchez Democrat has an editorial about it today, but for some reason, it's not on their website.

The City Planning Office has set aside today and tomorrow to show the Plan to the public and to answer their questions. If you didn't go today, make a point to go tomorrow between 10 am and 7 pm in the City Council Chambers. The original notice said it was only for today, but that was a mistake. They're available tomorrow as well. The staff was very nice and answered all my questions. They have available for you to take with you a summary of the plan, which lists all the districts and the uses allowed in them. If you want to play around with the districts, you can use my spreadsheet, which I described in the earlier article.

What there are no copies of is the plan itself and the maps. These will not be available until after they're approved. Of course, that's too late for the public to make comments. Believe me, no one is going to sit in that room and read that whole 193 page document - and it's very difficult to do a good job of studying the map also. I think if they really wanted public input, they would have made both the document and the maps available online.

Reasonable people could disagree over the districts and their uses, as well as the drawing of the districts, and they definitely could use a little tweaking. However, in my opinion, there is a fundamental flaw in the implementation.

One of the objectives of the Comprehensive Plan was to provide for predictability, since new businesses and residents rely on that. No one wants to move into a lovely residential neighborhood and then have a loud bar move in next door. Businesses almost always look at zoning codes prior to investing in a new business. Who wants to open an upscale boutique and then have a hog farm appear right next to you?

Our current system allows way too many ways around the zoning to ensure predictability. The new plan was supposed to accomplish two things. One was to eliminate the need for variances for use, which Natchez allows far too often. A use would either be allowed in a certain district or not - no variances allowed. A second was to remove politics from the whole process, because everything would be very clear. However, as I read the Plan, all decisions would be made by the Mayor and Board of Aldermen. It looks like the Planning Commission can only "review and recommend." It's almost like the Planning Commission holds the hearing, but the Board makes the decision. I hope I have misunderstood that part, because it's key.

It's your city, and if you care about its future development, you'll make it your business to understand this new code.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Interesting Information About the Cato Casino

According to a 2004 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Lac du Flambeau Chippewa tribe, along with some Chicago investors, bought a floating casino to be called the Dream Catcher. Then according to another article in 2006

"the tribe - which has spent years scouring the country in search of an off-reservation casino deal - found a buyer that was willing to pay $3 million 'in cash or other consideration' for the Dream Catcher. The other consideration appears to have been a chance for the tribe to buy into a casino being developed near Natchez, Miss."

According to the same article, apparently the tribe is trying to get rid of its Chicago investors, who sued the tribe.

Now read Natchez - The Beginning or the End posted today by a tribe blogger, and you'll see some funny things may be happening with this deal.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Rinaldi Brouhaha

Well, Rinaldi has certainly stirred up a hornet's nest. The latest issue of his free publication, the Miss Lou Magazine, contained an inflammatory blurb on the front page under Local News. I can't give you a link, because it is not included on his online version. I am not going to quote it - you'll have to look for yourself. Let me summarize by saying that it is a homophobic attempt to smear someone.

Several people wrote Rinaldi expressing their outrage. However, the brouhaha was really started by someone who calls himself John Natchez, a gay business owner. He sent an email to Rinaldi and sent copies to all Rinaldi's advertisers, as well as lots of other people. This email has been flying around Natchez. I will quote part of his email.

As the gay community in the Miss-Lou continues to grow and prosper, this sort of statement by a paper is both ignorant and disrespectful. From this point forward, I will encourage my friends and contacts to disregard the Miss-Lou Magazine, and inform them to boycott its advertisers as they are being published in an anti-gay magazine.

Here is the list of advertisers in his letter. I can barely wait to see who's still advertising in the next issue. Be sure to vote in the poll at the bottom.

  • Audubon Gallery
  • Bernie Pyron's
  • Bowie Outfitters
  • Century 21 River Cities
  • Cook Lawn & Tractor
  • Davidson's Wine
  • Dunleith Plantation
  • Great River Chevrolet
  • Kentwood Springs
  • Lasyone Furniture
  • LCR Plumbing Warehouse
  • Marketplace Cafe'
  • Natchez Heating & Cooling
  • Natchez Telephone
  • Old South Federal Credit Union
  • The Markets
  • United Mississippi Bank
  • Weeks Wholesale Furniture

New Zoning for City of Natchez

In today's Natchez Democrat is a Public Notice that the City of Natchez is considering the adoption of a development code and new zoning map for the city.

The public will be allowed exactly 9 hours to look at this new proposal: from 10 am - 7 pm on Wednesday, March 21 in the City Council Chambers. The notice goes on to say this is not a public hearing and there will be no presentation, although staff will be available to answer questions.

There is a regular meeting of the Planning Commission today (Thursday, 3/15) at 5:15 pm. After that meeting, I'll post an Update here with any new information.

First, here's some history of this project.

Last year, the City hired a consultant to work on updating our development code, which is desperately needed. A draft proposal was presented at a public hearing in June. However, shortly thereafter, the City Planner was fired, and this project was put on hold. I'm not sure what has transpired since then, but below is what I knew and thought at the time.

The main benefit of the new Development Code is that there will NO Use variances. If a Use is not listed in a particular Zoning District, it will not happen – no matter what. It takes the politics out of Use. No governmental agency can overturn it. The Development Code becomes part of the City Code – ie, the laws of the City. Of course, the Mayor and Board of Alderman can choose to change the law, but that’s the only way around the Development Code. So you can see how very important this Code is.

There are 17 different proposed Zoning Districts, which are defined in the
Summary of the Draft Code. For each District, there are Uses that are allowed by Right, which means no approval is necessary. There are also Uses that are allowed by Exception, which have to be approved by the Zoning Commission, with public input. (And I believe the Mayor and Board of Aldermen can overrule the Zoning Commission.) If a Use is not listed by Right or by Exception in a particular District, it is absolutely not allowed. The structure(s) proposed for the Use still has to pass Preservation Guidelines (if it’s in the Historic District), as well as all other required building guidelines and laws. It’s only the Use itself that is addressed in this Development Code – not the structure(s).

The Draft Code Summary included a table of all possible uses, with the zones where they were allowed by Right and by Exception. I didn’t find this very helpful – I wanted to know what Uses were allowed in each District. So I converted their table into a
spreadsheet, so I could see that information. The Planning Commission made some changes, but I’m not sure I got them all, so I just used the original table.

Here’s how to use the spreadsheet: The first column lists the 180 different uses. Across the first row are two columns for each of the 17 different Zoning Districts. The first column is blue and has a “r” after the District for Use by Right, and the second column is white and has a “e” after the District for Use by Exception. For example, go to Row 24, for Bed & Breakfast Use. By reading across, you can see, a Bed & Breakfast is a Use by Right in District R-VR, and a Use by Exception in Districts R-E, R-1, R-2, and R-3. To see all Uses allowed in a certain District, you have to sort. To do that, click on the Sort Tab.

If you think this is confusing, this is only the beginning. Because the real battle will be over the maps that will be drawn to go along with the 17 districts.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Mississippi at the Bottom - Again

I always cringe when I see an article about national rankings of states. Whatever the measurement is, I know Mississippi will be at the bottom. I've heard it said that people in Arkansas and Louisiana say "Thanks heavens for Mississippi - it keeps us from being 50th." When I was flying to Austria recently, I was having a conversation with a German woman. She asked where in America I lived. I said Mississippi and asked if she'd heard of it. She said, "Oh, yes! The state that's at the bottom of everything." Ouch! That's pretty bad - our reputation has reached all the way to Europe.

I read a new rankings article today. I decided that whenever I come across one, I'll post the results here. Usually we just ignore this unpleasant news, but maybe we should pay attention to it. Maybe we can learn something.

The headline for this story said "Deadliest, Safest States for Truck Crashes". More than 100 people a week are killed in large truck crashes in this country. Large trucks account for 3 percent of registered vehicles but 12 percent to 13 percent of traffic fatalities. Trying to increase awareness of this problem, the Truck Safety Coalition announced state rankings, based on the number of fatalities per 100,000 residents in 2005, the most recent year with complete statistics.

The good news is Mississippi is not the deadliest. The bad news is that we're fifth behind Wyoming, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. (Guess Arkansas can't thank heavens for Mississippi this time.)

The main objective of the Truck Safety Coalition was to pressure the federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which was created by Congress in 1999, and which has "failed miserably" according to the Coalition. It's true that a federal agency could undoubtedly make a difference. However, the more interesting question to me is why some states are so much worse than others.

The answer may be in a quote from the agency issued in its defense. "We have invested millions of dollars working with the state and local law enforcement community to do more safety reviews and roadside inspections of trucks and buses than ever before.” The federal government, while willing to be supportive, is leaving enforcement up to the states. Some states obviously do a better job than others.

Look at the 5 states at the top of the deadliest list. They're all conservative (red) states that believe that the less regulation of business the better - "keep the government off my back". Now look at the safest states: Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Hawaii, New York, New Hampshire. They're all liberal (blue) states that love government regulation.

The question in this and many similar regulation dilemmas is whether the safety factor outweighs the economic cost or vice versa. Interestingly, the safest states are also the wealthiest, and the deadliest states are the poorest.

Okay, I'm trying something new. I'm putting a poll on this site so viewers can vote on an issue. This is a free service that will put an ad on my page somewhere. So we'll see how we like this.

There was a poll here that asked: "What should be done about the high number of deadly truck crashes in Mississippi? "
  • "Nothing." 1 vote
  • "Let the federal government handle it." 1 vote
  • "Mississippi should increase its regulation of the trucking industry." 29 votes

UPDATE: I just received this email: Hey Casey, Check out this site ! You will find a person who, after having a conversation with a youngster about Mississippi while traveling on a plane, came up with this campaign.

Friday, March 09, 2007

O.K. - yeah you right

Born and raised as I was in "the land of red beans and slot machines" (New Orleans) I was a genuine cynic. Down there minor corruption was routine and major corruption not unusual. The "system" was broke and nobody bothered to care anymore. You didn't expect anyone in "government" to pay a price for doing wrong. Cynicism was a tonic to prevent anger, frustration, and bitterness.

I was SO happy to come here. Not only is it a beautiful place, but the people were friendly and welcoming. Good food, good folks, affordable living - a great combination. It is a wonderful place to live. A VERY nice added attraction was that the legal system here worked so MUCH better than where I came from (I thought).

So when all this stuff about the bluff - etal - arose I said "no problem the legal system will address it and take care of it". Many of you out there must have laughed out loud at my naivete. Well, shame on me. I'm in the land of catfish and slot machines. The system here is as broken down as elsewhere. Good grief, the fine is low enough - why didn't the AG just proceed and throw us a bone???

Well I'm a cynic again. I don't know if or when this bunch (now the State is in the bunch) will pay a price, but if one more negative karma transmitter makes a difference there's one more (well experienced one) out there.

It's still a place with good food, good folks, and good times (the cost of living has taken off).

Thursday, March 08, 2007

What is the World is the Antiquities Law? And Why Should You Care About It?

The Antiquities Law is not a law dealing with old people - or even old furniture. It's a law protecting historic properties in Mississippi. You should care about it, because it's helped to make Natchez what it is today - a historic mecca attracting attention from across the country. You should also care about it, because it can protect the treasure that is Natchez from ignorance and greed.

Protected historic properties are called Mississippi Landmarks. They can be sites, objects, or buildings and must be of historical, archaeological, or architectural significance. They are generally publically owned - that is owned by the state, a county, or a city.

How does a property get to be a Mississippi Landmark? That determination is made by the Board of Trustees of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, after ample opportunity for public comment.

The law clearly states that once a property has been designated as a Mississippi Landmark, it
"may not be taken, altered, damaged, destroyed, salvaged, restored, renovated or excavated without a permit from the board or in violation of the terms of such permit".

The law also clearly states the penalties for violation of this law:
"Any person violating any of the provisions of this chapter shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction shall be punished by a fine of not less than five hundred dollars ($500.00) and not more than five thousand dollars ($5,000.00), or by confinement in jail for not more than thirty (30) days, or by both such fine and confinement. Each day of continued violation of any provision of this chapter shall constitute a distinct and separate offense for which the offender may be punished."

The Mississippi Landmark designation is the highest form of recognition bestowed on properties by the state of Mississippi - and it backs up its committment to preservation with some real money. The state has established a grant program especially for these landmark properties. Approximately half a million dollars in grant funds are available annually through the Mississippi Department of Archives.

I've prepared a list of Mississippi Landmarks in Adams County, if you're interested.

Monday, March 05, 2007

It's an Election Year!

Well, boys and girls, it's an election year. Do you know what that means? It means some of the people who control your life will be chosen this year. The question is whether you will have a say in who those people are.

One of my rules in life is that if you don't vote, then you're not allowed to complain about the politicians who get elected. So if you want to rant and rave in the comments section of this blog, you'd better be sure to vote in the upcoming election. (Of course, I have no way to enforce this, since last time I checked, we still have a secret ballot. However, with those new computer voting machines, I'm not entirely sure!)

This year, we will have a Primary Election on August 7, a Primary Runoff Election on August 28, and a General Election on November 6. To help you keep track of all these dates (and many others), this blog now has its own calendar. To get to it, just look on the right side of this page where it says Links and you'll see a link for the Natchez Calendar. This is not your typical Natchez calendar - it's more like a political calendar. This is where you can come to find out when all those governmental bodies have their meetings, and when all the relevant election deadlines are, etc. I've just started it, and I expect it will get full of goodies soon.

In this election, we'll be selecting all the people who run our county: Chancery Clerk, Circuit Clerk, Constables, Coronor, County Attorney, Justice Court Judges, Sheriff, Supervisors, Tax Assessor, and Tax Collector. Quick tell me everybody who's running for all those jobs. You can't? Well, how about who holds those positions now. That's better, but you still missed a few. You'd better check out another new feature to this blog. Look under Links again, and you'll see 2007 Candidates, which is the cheat sheet for the elections. Right now, all I have are the basics, but I'll be updating it as the Election progresses. So keep in touch.

Oh, I'm not finished with this election yet. In addition to all those county folks, you'll be voting for all kinds of state officials as well. There are all the statewide elections: Governor, Lt Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, State Auditor, State Treasurer, Agriculture & Commerce Commissioner, and Insurance Commissioner. I didn't even bother with them on my list of Candidates - you're on your own there. I just concentrated on those that represent Adams County in some capacity. That includes Public Service Commissioner and Transportation Commissioners for the Southern Region, District Attorney, 2 State Senators, and 4 State Representatives. Are you tired yet? Don't worry, I won't quiz you this time. But your exam is on August 7. I hope you'll be prepared!

Just in case you have no idea what district you live in for any of these candidates, I have just the thing you need - under Links again. Election Maps! Aren't you excited? No? Gee, I thought you would be.

PS To be able to vote, you first have to be registered. Are you registered? The deadline is July 7. (It's in the Natchez Calendar, of course!)

UPDATE: I've added a better map of Adams county to Election Maps. The best way to understand the meaning of the term gerrymandering is to draw election boundaries on a map. It makes you wonder if the lines weren't drawn to include all someone's relatives! Check out the Supervisor's District 4 for a good example.