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Environmental Court to help clean up city

NATCHEZ — Owners of dilapidated houses, litterbugs and other city code violators will soon be facing a new judge in a new city court.

City Attorney Hyde Carby told the Natchez Board of Aldermen Tuesday at its meeting that he hopes to have an ordinance drafted that will establish the city’s environmental court, which will hear violations for nuisance properties, abandoned vehicles, littering and similar offenses.

The court will operate similar to traffic court with local lawyer Anthony Heidelberg serving as municipal court judge pro tem.

The city has been looking at ways to prosecute litter violation cases faster, and the mayor and board of aldermen concluded that the court was the best solution.

The court will eliminate the need for the board of aldermen having to adjudicate nuisance properties. The city, Carby said, will still have the opportunity to file tax liens to collect clean-up costs owed by property owners, if the city chooses to do so.

In the past, Mayor Butch Brown said, the city was improperly filing tax liens and was not recouping costs for cleaning up properties.

“The court corrects that, but it does not restrict that, we can still file liens,” he said. “But the court will work, and it will work better.”

Carby said the city’s code enforcement staff will identify violations and issue citations as a warning to violators, who will be given a certain amount of time to correct the violation.

If the violation is not corrected, the violator will be served a summons by a Natchez police officer to appear in the environmental court.

The city’s community improvement specialist, Anita Smith, and code enforcement officer Willie B. Jones will serve as the state’s witness to present evidence of code violations to the court, Carby said. Heidelberg said a prosecutor for the court has not yet been chosen.

The court should be up and running by the latter part of February, Heidelberg said. He said court will be at 4:30 or 5 p.m. the first and third Monday of every month in the Natchez City Council Chambers.

Heidelberg said he expressed interest to the city in becoming a municipal judge pro tem and conducting the environmental court.

Heidelberg said he has seen other communities, such as Gulfport, Vicksburg and Tupelo, successfully conduct an environmental court to clean up to their respective cities. He also said a cleaner Natchez will boost economic development because the city would better appeal to companies looking to locate here.

“It would also, in some cases, increase the value of property,” he said.

The goal is not for the city to put a hardship on residents by fining them for violations, Heidelberg said. The goal, he said, is to get the city cleaned up.

“It does make it easier on the city to sell the city not just for companies coming in, but we’re also a large tourist town, and this will boost tourism,” he said.

Once the court is started, and residents understand that the city will not tolerate abandoned cars in yards or houses in deplorable condition, Heidelberg said, violations will decrease.

“Once we get people in the mindset of doing better, it will improve the appearance of the city,” he said.

Heidelberg said the city currently has 300-500 violations noted in its books.

“That’s far too many for a town our size,” he said. “If we can cut that in half, think about how that’s going to improve the appearance of the city.”

Brown said the city estimates that the court will cost $2,000 to $3,000 a month to operate.

Carby told the aldermen that the idea is for the court to pay for itself.

“Ideally when its up and running, it will pay for itself, and ideally, it will be a net gain for the city,” he said.