We can’t compromise preservation

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 14, 2008

I commend The Natchez Democrat for its opinion piece of Friday, July 11 (“Compromise Isn’t Always the Answer”). I agree with The Democrat on this issue. This is not an issue on which to seek compromises; nor does the board of aldermen belong in this process.

Allowing businesses such as Fat Mama’s to do an end run around the planning and preservation commissions establishes a precedent that ultimately will have negative, far-reaching consequences for the historical and architectural integrity of our downtown. Rather than undermining these commissions by hearing appeals from disgruntled parties who don’t want to play by the rules, the Board of Aldermen should instead strengthen those bodies by giving them real authority to enforce their decisions.

If a business does not want to be burdened by having to conform with planning and preservation ordinances, there are plenty of other high traffic, high visibility areas of Natchez in which a business might set up shop very profitably. John R. Junkin Drive, Seargent S. Prentiss Drive, D’Evereux Drive, U.S. 61 North and South are all suitable arteries for enterprises that would prefer to have prominent signage, lots of unadorned asphalt and no particular concerns about building design.

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Our historic downtown is another matter entirely. It demands careful and intelligent treatment when it comes to issues of building design, green space, etc. It is at once an historic neighborhood, and an increasingly vibrant, eclectic business community. Charleston and Savannah have districts comparable to what we have here in Natchez, and each of these cities has stringent preservation and building ordinances intended to protect these vitally important districts. These cities understand not only the immense historical significance of preserving their historic districts, but also the economic benefits to be derived from doing so.

After seeing the comments appended to this editorial in the online forum, it is apparent that many in Natchez would happily dismantle all preservation ordinances and planning codes in the name of “progress.” Following this line of reasoning, industries, companies and businesses would presumably be falling all over themselves to set up shop in our new “business friendly” climate. I hate to obliterate this appealing fantasy, but so long as we have a de facto system of segregated schools, a 35 percent rate of functional illiteracy in Adams County, and limited air and rail service, our ability to attract investment will remain seriously compromised. These are the pressing issues that are retarding broader prosperity from coming to Natchez, and that demand the attention of our leaders — not the gutting of the planning and preservation commissions.

Portions of our downtown have been designated a National Historical Park for a very good reason; there are few places like it left in the United States. Throwing away the preservation ordinances and watering down the city planning codes with compromises are regressive, self-defeating measures. Should we continue to do so, we will be guilty of committing acts of self-mutilation that will disfigure the very thing that makes our city so unique, and attracts visitors to us. That will be to our shame.

Tom Scarborough