Planning department steps up beautification efforts

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 14, 2005

Natchez &8212; Take a good look at the dilapidated house or overgrown lot next to you. If city officials get their way, it may soon be gone.

A legal notice in the Nov. 7 edition properties aldermen are set to declare &8220;a menace to the public and health and safety of the community&8221; at a Nov. 22 public hearing. If that happens, the city can clean up the property and place the cost, plus a 25-percent penalty, as a lien on the property.

The process itself isn&8217;t new. What is new is the sheer number of properties listed &8212; 18 in all. That, said City Planner Andrew Smith, is an indication his office is stepping up its efforts to enforce city codes and take other actions to make sure neighborhoods are kept clean.

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That&8217;s good news for Irene Watkins. The Madison Street resident lives next door to and across the street from three of the 18 properties listed and said she&8217;s called City Hall several times to get them to do something about tall grass, structures in disrepair and the like.

&8220;It&8217;s been that way since the &8217;90s,&8221; said Watkins, who has lived on Madison Street for 14 years and was referring to the neighboring properties.

And it&8217;s not just the unkempt look of those houses and lots that unnerves her. &8220;One of those houses is used as a motel, basically,&8221; she said. &8220;You never know who&8217;s over there or who could be watching you from the grass, it&8217;s so tall.&8221;

Not only that, but unkempt properties reduce the value of neighboring houses and make them harder to sell, said Realtor Charlotte Copeland of Century 21 River Cities Realty.

&8220;People are scared of grown-up properties. If a property is rundown, people assume there&8217;s crime going on there, too.&8221;

How well a neighborhood is kept up is a major factor when people seek a new place to live, Copeland said.

&8220;When people are looking for a house, we always get asked what&8217;s going on next door,&8221; she said.

Local leaders have also said the appearance of neighborhoods as well as business districts can send a negative message to someone thinking about locating a business in the area.

City officials have named absentee property owners, and the legal process the city must go through to notify them, as major hurdle to clear in getting such properties cleaned.

But when such lots are cleaned up, it boosts the pride people have in their neighborhood and in themselves.

&8220;It improves people&8217;s self-esteem as well as boosting property values,&8221; Smith said.

And Mayor Phillip West has long named cleaning up blight as a top priority for this term.

Toward that end the city&8217;s Planning Department, which Smith was hired in July to head, is taking a two-prong approach to addressing blight.

In recent months, the department has redoubled its enforcement efforts, including issuing more citations, Smith said. Figures on the number of citations were not available as of press time.

&8220;But we don&8217;t want to be punitive in our efforts,&8221; Smith said. &8220;So we&8217;re also empowering residents to take charge of their own neighborhoods.&8221;

One way in which the city is doing so is by identifying several neighborhoods throughout the city that have had problems with rundown houses, overgrown lots, crime and the like.

These &8220;Intensive Care Neighborhoods&8221; will receive special attention from all city departments to address such problems in a comprehensive way.

&8220;The Fire, Police and Public Works departments are all involved,&8221; Smith said.

As part of that program, a couple of residents in each ICU neighborhood will be responsible for calling to the city&8217;s attention properties that need to be cleaned up.

The city will then mail &8220;friendly reminder&8221; cards to the property owners in question reminding them to clean up their act.

But involving residents in the improvement of their neighborhoods isn&8217;t limited to the ICU areas.

In Ward 2, Alderman James &8220;Rickey&8221; Gray has started a network of neighborhood associations he hopes will lead to neighbors getting to know each other better, beautifying their streets and helping keep crime at bay.

Gray has identified 16 distinct neighborhoods in his north Natchez ward as well as active citizens he would like to see take the lead to form neighborhood associations in each of those areas.

A meeting held last month for neighborhood association captains in Ward 2 had a healthy turnout, as did a Monday public hearing in the Bluff Heights area, a proposed ICU neighborhood, Smith said.

Smith said he would like to see a program similar to Gray&8217;s neighborhood association network spread to all wards of the city.

And Smith doesn&8217;t want to stop there. In the future, he wants to start a Neighborhood Institute, a series of classes that teach residents how to better take charge of their streets&8217; destinies.

He is also mulling over ways to get landlords to clean up their rental properties.

All that being said, Smith added that the list of properties selected for cleanup aren&8217;t representative of the whole community.

&8220;The vast majority of people in Natchez&8217;s neighborhoods are clean, and they keep their property that way,&8221; Smith said.