Land deals slow down Rosalie project

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 12, 2001

A slowdown in property acquisition has interrupted progress at the National Park Service Fort Rosalie site.

Eleven of the 31 tracts, many of them in the 500 block of South Canal Street, have been purchased by the Park Service. Others await further negotiations with land owners, said Bob Dodson, superintendent of the Natchez National Historical Park.

&uot;All of the properties for Fort Rosalie have been appraised four times, but it comes down to the fact that we can’t come to an agreement with some of the owners,&uot; Dodson said. &uot;So we’ve gone into the condemnation process to let a federal judge and jury decide the value of the property.&uot;

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Condemnation, in law, is the acquisition of a property for a public purpose under the right of eminent domain.

Eight to nine tracts are involved in the legal process now. Dodson said Park Service officials hope values set by the court in these proceedings will speed up acquisition of the remaining land, as well – without further court action. The National Park Service in its plans for the Natchez National Historical Park more than 10 years ago included the fort as one of its three components, the other two being the antebellum house Melrose and the 1840s house of the famous free black barber William Johnson.

The fort segment lags behind the others in development; and even with all the property in place, funding for converting the land into the park is years away, Dodson said.

&uot;If a miracle happened and we owned the land tomorrow, we’re still five years away from funding,&uot; he said.

Nevertheless, money for purchasing the property indeed is in place. In fact, the Park Service has increased the fund for purchasing the property to make up for costs of all the extra appraisals, Dodson said.

Plans for the park site at a minimum include trails, historic markers describing the history and archaeology of the fort, which was established by the French in 1716, making it one of the earliest European settlements on the Mississippi River.

James Biglane, part owner of some of the fort site tracts included in the eminent domain process, said his position has been that until the Park Service comes up with a reasonable offer, he is not interested.

Another property owner, who is the last of the residents on the lofty ridge overlooking the river, said he simply wants to enjoy his home for as long as he can.

Tony Burke describes his location as &uot;dead center,&uot; and he loves it. &uot;I’ve been here for 27 years, and I have no motivation to leave.&uot;

The cases that are headed for court do not include his property, Burke said. And he thinks the Park Service understands his position.

&uot;It’s not the money,&uot; he said. &uot;Even if they offered a wonderful piece of money, that’s still not the issue.&uot;

Burke has had a good relationship with the Park Service since they first came on the scene to appraise property, he said. &uot;It has not been adversarial. And until something happens with the major land owners, I’m pretty safe.&uot;

Still, he wonders at the irony of some of the language used by the appraisers, he said.

&uot;They say they don’t buy views, but they want my property for the overlook.&uot;

A further question for the fort site development involves property extending all the way to the river’s edge, including the parking lot now leased from Biglane by Isle of Capri Casino.

That lease, first negotiated with Lady Luck Casino, is for 40 years and is renewable for another 40 years, Biglane said.

Isle of Capri assumed the lease when the company purchased the Natchez casino from Lady Luck.

Dodson said the Park Service will end up with three roads, but only after all the property has been acquired. The roads are Rosalie Street, D.A. Biglane Street and Green Street.

&uot;We don’t have a development plan for the parking lot, but there’s a need for parking and for benches and perhaps for a boat launch.&uot;

Natchez remains the only river city that has its natural landscape along the riverfront.

The Park Service understands the importance of that, he said.

Timing of acquiring property – especially through the condemnation process – is important, Dodson said. &uot;The government has made many mistakes in the past, running people off their land and then letting it sit there for years.&uot; He doesn’t foresee that happening in Natchez.

Yet he admits that a long time may pass before the Fort Rosalie segment of the park is complete.

&uot;We’re talking many years before the fort can be enjoyed by the public.&uot;

This week Dodson marked the end of eight years in Natchez as superintendent.

&uot;I thought this would take only a couple of years,&uot; he said of the fort site. &uot;That shows how naive I was. But we have the funding, and we’ll continue to work on it.&uot;