How close is too close?

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 19, 2006

NATCHEZ &8212; For one family, the large hole behind their home is a good sign, as it means the swimming pool they hope to build at least has been started.

For a neighboring family, however, the hole now dominates the scene from their south windows and raises questions for them about the city ordinances they thought would protect their property.

For both families, the firing of Natchez City Planner Andrew Smith on Friday puts a new twist on the construction.

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Other city officials, including the city engineer and city attorney, believe the Cloutiers can go ahead with the swimming pool provided they follow engineering guidelines they have been given.

However, addition of a domed mesh covering over the pool may or may not require a zoning variance

&8212; a decision the city planner had not made before he was fired.

In March, construction began on the pool at 508 S. Commerce St., home of Lawrie and Patricia Cloutier.

Their neighbors at 506 S. Commerce, Marc and Courtney Taylor, were not surprised at the pool &8212; they had heard a pool might be in the works.

They were surprised that all the vegetation in their neighbors&8217; backyard was removed, that the pool was dug to come within a foot of the property line and that the pool covered most of the neighbors&8217; backyard.

&8220;Patricia has always been very tasteful and very careful with her home,&8221; said Courtney Taylor, who lives with her husband, Marc, and their children in a home they bought and restored two years ago.

&8220;And because we have a preservation commission and ordinances, we felt everything would be appropriate to the neighborhood. To my horror, I found not only was it inappropriate; it was intrusive.&8221;

It was not the neighbors&8217; reaction to the large pool that caused the construction to stop, however.

It was a miscommunication between the Natchez Planning Department and other key departments in the permit process that caused the Cloutiers to think they had the go-ahead and then to find out they did not, said Natchez City Engineer David Gardner.

&8220;Typically, if an engineering study is required, I&8217;d be notified,&8221; he said. &8220;I was not.&8221;

When the pool proposal came before the Natchez Preservation Commission, red flags went up. Commissioners gave their OK to the concept of the pool &8212; and the mesh dome &8212; but said the geo-technical work would have to be done before construction could resume.

For Gardner, resuming construction of the pool cannot come soon enough now that the Cloutiers have responded to the geo-technical requirements.

&8220;The hole is not good left like that, and it is not Mr. Cloutier&8217;s fault,&8221; Gardner said. &8220;As of now, he has met the guidelines for the engineering, and he is now free to build his pool.&8221;

However, &8220;certain precautionary measures must be made with respect to the adjacent slope,&8221; he said.

Those measures, in brief, include installing a particular drain system with a pump beneath the pool; the underlying of a geo-membrane liner that is seamed together to provide a leak proof strata &8212; with a gravel drainage system above the liner and beneath the lower portion of the pool; filling and grading to direct storm water and drainage away from the slope crests; solid sod turf placed on all freshly graded and filled areas immediately upon completion of the work to prevent future erosion; a ban on dumping grass cuttings and other debris along the slopes; and ongoing maintenance of the slopes and of the automatic pump system.

In May, the Taylors formally asked members of the Planning Commission, Preservation Commission and Board of Aldermen to consider their objections to the pool.

Courtney Taylor said she believes her neighbors have violated the city&8217;s zoning ordinances in several ways.

The ordinances do not mention swimming pools but she believes a pool fits the category of &8220;accessory building,&8221; Taylor said, pointing out that such buildings cannot occupy more than 30 percent of a backyard and must be built 10 feet away from the property line; or three feet away under certain stipulations.

City Attorney Walter Brown said the Cloutiers, through their attorney, Kent Hudson, have agreed to move the pool apron five feet from the property line, following zoning ordinances for &8220;a paved terrace.&8221;

&8220;I think he can build the swimming pool right now and file for variance on (the mesh dome),&8221; Brown said.

The mayor could resolve the issue by granting the permit as chief executive of the city in the absence of a planner or the Cloutiers can apply for a variance to the Zoning Board of Adustment, Brown said.

Mimi Miller, director of preservation for the Historic Natchez Foundation, said city ordinances are written to protect neighborhoods such as the one on South Commerce Street.

&8220;Subdivisions are protected by deed restrictions. You don&8217;t have to worry about anything,&8221; Miller said. &8220;But downtown was constructed long before such things were thought of. That&8217;s why we have ordinances &8212; to give people assurance they are protected when they invest in property in historic areas.&8221;

Miller said the sad thing is that the dispute arose between good people who are good neighbors.

&8220;The close proximity of these two properties points out the need for ordinances. Good zoning laws and good interpretation of zoning laws make good neighbors.&8221;

Marty Seibert, chairman of the Preservation Commission, said the swimming pool project came to her commission as a request for construction of a pool and an enclosure.

&8220;We approved it as a concept,&8221; Seibert said. She sympathizes with the Taylors, particularly with the cutting down of old trees and shrubs that provided a screen between the two houses.

&8220;But there is nothing that says you have to keep that vegetation. It works as a wonderful shield when the houses are close together like theirs, but we can&8217;t tell someone not to cut vegetation,&8221; Seibert said.

The commissioners also saw a picture of the pool cover. &8220;It&8217;s a dome made of metal rods with a metal or mesh cover over it,&8221; Seibert said. &8220;If you can imagine a biking helmet shape. That&8217;s what it looks like.&8221;

Courtney Taylor said she realizes now that she and her husband should have spoken up. &8220;We received a letter (from the planning office) telling us about the pool,&8221; she said. &8220;I didn&8217;t want to be a bad neighbor and object. That was my first mistake.&8221;

She does not blame her neighbor for what she sees as a project mishandled by the planning office, Taylor said.

&8220;In defense of my neighbor, I don&8217;t think he acted with malice but was just enthusiastic about what he wanted,&8221; she said. &8220;Apparently, the city planner did not take the proper steps before the permit was issued.&8221;

Gardner said he has signed off on the project, and City Attorney Walter Brown wrote an opinion that said a variance for the pool was not needed.

Courtney Taylor said she does not have an attorney to represent her views. &8220;City laws ought to do that,&8221; she said.

&8220;We need someone in the planning position who is better able to come up with solutions for all the parties. A preservation commission and a city planner are essential to the future of our city, especially now.&8221;

The Cloutiers did not want to comment for this article.