City not answering publics condo questions

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 14, 2005

NATCHEZ &8212; Questions and comments from citizens concerned about a proposed condo development on the Mississippi River blufftop were met with silence by the mayor and Board of Aldermen during the board&8217;s Tuesday meeting.

Paris Winn noted Mayor Phillip West said the board had discussed informally, before a Sept. 26 meeting with the Historic Preservation Commission, changing the city&8217;s preservation ordinance to raise the height limit on downtown buildings from 38 to 75 feet.

The board then voted in that meeting to make that change. The next day in the aldermen meeting the board acknowledged that change cannot be made without a Planning Commission recommendation and a public hearing.

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Winn said he expects public officials to know and follow such legal procedures and added meeting informally before an official meeting to discuss city business is a violation of the state&8217;s open meetings law.

Winn also objected to the board&8217;s recent appointment of a new Historic Preservation Commission member to replace Dennis Short, who resigned several months ago, without following the legal process of advertising the position for three weeks in the newspaper.

&8220;I hope we don&8217;t see a new member at the (Wednesday) meeting,&8221; Winn said, referring to a commission meeting set for 5:15 p.m. today at the council chambers on Pearl Street.

West has since said the city will follow all legal requirements, including the ads, before the appointed member is placed on the board.

Gwen Ball peppered the board with several questions regarding the condo complex planned by developers Ed Worley and Larry L. Brown Jr. Among them: Did the city advertise the proposed sale of the former Natchez Pecan Factory site and accept the highest and best bid as required by law?

&8220;My understanding is that the other bids were higher, and the other (plans) wouldn&8217;t have you gutting ordinances,&8221; Ball said.

The Natchez Democrat has filed a public records request with the City Clerk&8217;s Office asking for copies of all proposals submitted to the city regarding developments at the Pecan Factory site. Under state law, the city is required to provide the information within 14 days of the request &8212;Oct. 19 &8212; or explain why it cannot do so.

Ball&8217;s other questions: Were there three appraisals of the property? If not, where did the city&8217;s sale price of $500,000 come from? Has an environmental assessment been done, and what were the results?

Ball also addressed a newspaper article from last week that noted the development, without any tax exemptions for homesteads or the elderly/disabled, would generate less than $300,000 for the city and county together, not $300,000 for the city alone.

&8220;If the sales tax (estimates) were not true, are other assumptions (regarding the condo development not realistic?&8221; Ball said.

Mary Jane Gaudet encouraged city officials to make sure at least a 50-foot wide strip of land between the bluff and the condo development be kept open 24 hours a day for people to walk along the bluff and enjoy the riverfront view.

She also encouraged them to go back and lease the Pecan Factory site &8212; as has been done in along Vidalia&8217;s riverfront and at the Ross Barnett Reservoir near Jackson &8212; instead of selling it outright.

City Attorney Walter Brown has said it would be difficult to get financing for the project if the property was long-term leased rather than sold.

The Rev. John Scott Sr. also spoke at Tuesday&8217;s aldermen meeting, saying state and local preservation rules are stealing the Pecan Factory property from the city by not allowing the city to sell the property and approve its use at it sees fit.

Scott also city officials not to worry about the penalties the state could levy against city officials if the city demolishes the property without first letting the State Archives and History Department review the site to see if it qualifies as a state landmark.

Those penalties could amount to $5,000 and/or 30 days in jail. West has said the city will demolish the building with or without Archives and History&8217;s consent.

The board and mayor took no action and made no statement regarding Tuesday&8217;s public comments.