City planning change?Published 12:07am Friday, June 29, 2012
NATCHEZ — With no city planner or assistant planner beginning Monday, the city’s planning department could soon be renamed and reorganized.
Mayor-elect Larry L. “Butch” Brown said he has recommended to the Natchez Board of Aldermen that the city hire a city planner and an assistant to the city planner.
“It would not be an assistant city planner, just an assistant to the planner,” Brown said.
Brown said he already has someone in mind for the job, someone he said has extensive experience in city government. Brown declined to say who that person was or if he or she was a current or past city employee.
Along with finding a replacement for City Planner Bob Nix, who officially retired today, and hiring the planner’s assistant, the planning department will get a revamping, Brown said.
Brown said he wants to rename the department the Planning and Community Development Department.
Brown said in the past the planning department has been weighted down with code enforcement, and the staff has not been able to focus on community development issues like neighborhood revitalization.
Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis expressed the same concern at the aldermen’s retreat last week.
“I find the problem I’m having (in Ward 1) is we’re not looking at community planning,” Mathis said. “We need to look at the entire picture, not just preservation. We need some help in the other areas.”
Community planning and development will be a priority, Brown said. He said he plans to put the policing and enforcement of city codes in the proper hands: the Natchez Police Department.
Alleviating the planning department from policing the code, Brown said, will allow the staff to focus on other issues, such as community development.
Brown said he wants the police department to issue citations for overgrown lots and other code violations, which he said would streamline the process for prosecuting code violators.
Brown and Ward 5 Alderman Mark Fortenbery said they would also like to see the city’s code amended so the code is easier to understand for residents and the process for new businesses is streamlined.
“We will be more user-friendly and more business-friendly,” Brown said.
Fortenbery said he would like to see the code changed so the board of aldermen no longer hears appeals of Natchez Preservation and Planning commissions’ decisions.
“(Appeals) used to be heard in a court, and that’s where they belong,” Fortenbery said.
Brown said the city would try to find a city planner as soon as possible. He said Nix may stay on as a consultant after his retirement.
Nix was hired as city planner in June 2010, following a merry-go-round of city planners before him. The city had five city planners in 10 years, including three that were fired.
The turnover in the city planner’s office has worried Historic Natchez Foundation Director Mimi Miller for many years.
She said the turnover is a complex problem, but she said she believes one of the main reasons the City of Natchez can’t hang onto a planner is low salary. Nix’s salary was $48,000.
“I think a higher salary and real respect for what city planners do would help the city keep a planner in place,” Miller said.
Brown said he also believes a higher salary would decrease turnover in the city planner’s office.
Fortenbery said perhaps hiring a young planner, who is willing to learn and wants to stick around Natchez, could extend the longevity of a city planner.
Former city planner David Preziosi, who is now executive director of the Mississippi Heritage Trust, said he was attracted to Natchez because he believed it was a beautiful, historic town that was perfect to start his career.
Many different aspects factor in to what keeps a planner in a city for an extended period of time, Preziosi said.
“There are a lot of different factors, and how their personality fits in with community is also part of it,” he said.
Preziosi said certainly a higher salary would help keep a planner in place longer, but he said he does think a city can expect to keep a planner for a tremendously long time.
“I think you can hope for four to five years, that’s probably a good length for a planner,” he said. “I don’t think you can expect to get someone to stay for 30 years. People want to move onto different cities, sometimes bigger cities. That’s all part of the nature of the job.”
Different planners look for different things when looking at city planning jobs, Nix said.
He said planners look at cities that have issues or characteristics that appeal to their professional goals or expertise.
Nix said Natchez appealed to him because the city has a broad range of city planning needs.
He said the procedures of the planning and preservation commissions have improved, and the planning department has been somewhat stabilized.
Nix said, however, when the city adopted a code, it never went through the process of updating it.
“The city needs to clean up the codes, codify them and make them internally consistent,” he said. “A lot of the code enforcement problem is that people just don’t understand the code.”
Outgoing Mayor Jake Middleton said a higher salary for a city planner might attract someone who is willing to uproot their family and settle in Natchez for a while.
Middleton said, though, he believes the poorly written code makes it difficult not only for potential developers, business owners and residents to understand, but it also makes it difficult for a city planner to enforce.
“The development code needs to be thrown in the trash and rewritten,” Middleton said. “There’s too many hoops to jump through for potential developers looking to locate here and for residents who just want to fix a gutter or a window.”