Arlington issue gets heated at board meeting

Published 12:07 am Wednesday, June 13, 2012

NATCHEZ — Things got a bit hot at Tuesday’s Natchez Board of Aldermen meeting, but it was not simply because the air conditioner was broken.

Emotional temperatures rose too, as the board, a developers, attorneys and residents debated placing an oil well at historic Arlington.

The Natchez Board of Aldermen ultimately sided with Natchez Preservation Commission in denying a certificate of appropriateness for the proposed oil operation.

The preservation commission’s decision was appealed by Mike Biglane of RMB Exploration, who has been seeking approval for the well.

Biglane asked the aldermen to overturn the preservation commission’s decision based on a section of the code that allowed for relief from unreasonable economic hardship. Biglane said he has spent money to stake the Arlington location, has local and out-of-town investors that have already invested and set up a drilling contract with a company in Vidalia.

“(I’m looking at) $350,000 to drill a 4,600-foot well, and it’s going to take me four days to do it,” he said.

Biglane also asked the aldermen to look at the section of the code that requires buildings be kept up to the minimum code requirements, implying the oil well operation at Arlington would not matter because the house has extensive structural damage.

“Probably in a couple of years (Arlington) is going to be on the ground anyway,” Biglane said.

Arlington’s owner, Dr. Thomas Vaughan of Jackson, was found guilty of demolition by neglect in Municipal Judge Jim Blough’s court in December 2009. Since Blough’s ruling, Natchez City Planner Bob Nix said, the $100 per day fine allowed by state law has accumulated to more than $43,000.

Nix said according to city code, the aldermen were only charged with determining whether the preservation commission acted within its jurisdiction or abused its power.

When asked by Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard, Nix said he could not find any evidence that the preservation commission acted outside or abused its power.

One of the central issues with the Arlington oil operation and other similar operations has been that oil exploration is not listed as a special exception or permitted use in city code.

Biglane, therefore, had to submit a planned unit development application with a site plan asking the city to rezone the property to allow drilling.

A legal agreement approved by the aldermen at its Jan. 10 meeting allowed RMB to go ahead with preliminary drilling for an oil well at the company’s own risk without the necessary approvals from the city as long as RMB had an application in progress.

In the agreement, the city agrees not to take immediate enforcement action, delaying the consequences of the code violation if the well is successful until Biglane gets the necessary approvals and permits.

Attorney Sonny Gwin, who said he is a relative of the Vaughn family, said he believed the city did not have the legal authority to deny Biglane the right to drill at Arlington. Gwin said because city code does not specifically mention oil exploration, the city does not have the clear authority to deprive a mineral rights owner of his or her right to drill.

“If I was an owner, and this board rejected my right…I would take it wherever I had to take it to get the issue legally resolved,” Gwin said.

Gwin said he was not speaking on behalf of the Vaughns and added he has mineral rights interest at Monmouth, a location on which Biglane has said he has purchased property for oil exploration.

Natchez City Attorney Everett Sanders disagreed with Gwin’s interpretation of the law and said he believes the city has the authority to regulate what kind of industrial activity occurs within the city.

“Certainly if the ordinance is as vague as (Gwin) claims, then a court would have to determine that,” Sanders said.

Residents and local officials spoke out against the oil operation at the aldermen meeting.

Historic Natchez Foundation Executive Director Mimi Miller said there is legal precedence with the Mississippi Oil and Gas Board to protect historic sites from drilling. Miller cited an example in Jefferson County when the Mississippi Department and Archives and History and the Historic Natchez Foundation were successful when the oil and gas board required a developer to drill horizontally, which had less impact on the site.

Miller said she suggested horizontal drilling to Biglane, but Biglane said at a preservation meeting that horizontal drilling would be too expensive.

Resident Nona Colombo said she did not understand how it was so hard for the city to get in touch with Vaughn to pay his outstanding fines when he could be reached to sign oil and gas leases.

Colombo also asked Mayor Jake Middleton to recuse himself in the event he had to vote on Arlington because of his close relationship to the Biglane family.

Biglane now has the option to appeal the aldermen’s decision to a court.

In other news from the meeting:

-The board voted to pay the $20,000 in legal fees associated with the city’s recent swap transaction with Malachi Financial Products subject to the board receiving the $250,000 from the transaction. Ward 6 Alderman Dan Dillard voted against the motion.

The fees are $15,000 to Tony Gaylor of Chambers & Gaylor law firm, the city’s outside counsel, and $5,000 to the city attorney.

City Clerk Donnie Holloway cautioned against the motion made by Fields, citing that the city has not received the $250,000 for the transaction yet because the Mississippi Development Bank has not signed off on the transaction.

-The board received bids from four companies for the construction of the regional transit facility planned for North Shields Lane.

Natchez City Engineer David Gardner reported that the bids from all the companies were over the project’s budget.

Gardner requested the board recess the meeting so the city can consult the Mississippi Department of Transportation on how to handle the bids so a contract can be awarded.

The board will reconvene Tuesday’s recessed meeting at 8 a.m. June 21.

Click here to see a complete video of the meeting, created by Bruce Video Productions.