Project violated state law

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 4, 2001

Partners in a project to renovate a historic school into elderly apartments, among them the City of Natchez and Adams County, may have violated state law when they bypassed the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

The building on North Union Street, known as Carpenter School No. 1, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Mississippi landmark under the state antiquities law.

Both distinctions require that Archives and History approve any alterations to the building – a step that never happened, said Tom Waggener, review and compliance officer for archives and history. Work on the building began last fall.

Waggener, who joined Archives and History in 1999, said he found records showing where preliminary plans for the project to turn the former school into elderly apartments were submitted and approved by his office in June 1998.

But the approval was conditional that Archives and History would also see final plans, and officials there never heard anything more about the project.

&uot;If people don’t send us things and we don’t know about it otherwise, then we assume the project hasn’t started,&uot; Waggener said.

So when Archives and History began receiving complaints from Natchez residents who were dissatisfied with how the new construction looked, Waggener said officials immediately looked into the matter.

&uot;People were upset,&uot; he said.

Archives and History representatives visited the site last week and met with project architect Johnny Waycaster and James Johnston, Natchez’s community development coordinator, who is overseeing the project for the city.

But the department does have some recommendations, he said, including altering construction around exterior windows to better match the original design.

Waggener said his department is working on a formal recommendation and until then, construction on certain aspects of the projects has been halted.

State law allows Archives and History to halt work on the project altogether and institute a $500 fine plus up to 30 days in jail for each day of unauthorized construction, but Waggener said the department has no plans at this time to take action on the penalties.

In fact, he said Archives and History is ready to cooperate with the partners in the project so it may continue.

Mayor F.L. &uot;Hank&uot; Smith said he has followed the project since taking office last summer and is aware of the &uot;hurdles&uot; involved.

Because of the number of state and federal agencies involved in the project, &uot;it doesn’t surprise me that a detail was overlooked,&uot; he said. &uot;And I don’t have any doubt that it was unintentional.

&uot;If there was a step that was omitted that needs to go back and be corrected, then that’s what we’re going to do.&uot;

Johnston agreed. &uot;We will address what we need to address,&uot; he said. &uot;Anything that fell through the cracks did so inadvertently.&uot;

The $2.1 million restoration of Carpenter School No. 1 is being financed through a partnership with the city, the county, United Mississippi Bank, the Natchez Council on Aging, local investors and out-of-town investors and developers.

Other partners are the Mississippi Regional Housing Authority out of McComb and the Public and Indian Housing Division of Housing and Urban Development.