Housing at Forks changes

Published 12:08 am Friday, June 22, 2012

NATCHEZ — The developer of a proposed affordable housing development on historic private property next to the Forks of the Road has amended the project’s site plan to have less impact on the site and could be abandoning the second phase of the project altogether.

David Kelly of Chartre Consulting and Natchez National Historical Park Superintendent Kathleen Jenkins appeared before the Natchez Planning Commission at its meeting Thursday to inform the commission of recent developments in the project.

Kelly was seeking an administrative approval of changes to the project’s site plan, which City Planner Bob Nix said lessened the impact of the project on the historic site.

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Nix said the changes made the buildings taller but narrower, which would disturb less ground, as well as kept more trees at the site and overall, he said, made the project better.

Kelly said the changes to the plan were actually costing the company more money, but he said the company wanted to do whatever possible to be sensitive to the site and be a good corporate citizen in Natchez.

Kelly informed the commission that the development’s name would change from Stonehurst Arms to Old Bridge Place, to show respect to the historic bridge near the site.

Nix said he did not believe the changes to the plan significantly impacted the already approved site plan enough to warrant another public hearing, but he said it was up to the commission.

The commission, except Chairman Charles Harris, agreed that it would be best for the changes to be administratively approved since the developers are on a timeline.

Harris said any changes to any site plan for any other historic site in the city would be thoroughly examined in a public hearing before a vote.

Commissioner Butch Johnson said he believed the commission would be shooting itself in the foot by not going ahead and signing off on the changes. Kelly said without an administrative approval of the changes to the plan, he would have to proceed with the original plan to meet construction deadline.

Kelly also said the company is currently searching for other property to buy in order to abandon the second phase of the project at the site near the Forks.

The most significant and historic part of the site, Jenkins said, is where the second phase of the housing development would be located. That property extends from the radio tower to South Concord Avenue.

The development will be located at the corner of St. Catherine and Rembert streets and will be funded through the Section 42 tax credit program.

National Park Services archaeologists from Tallahassee, Fla., Jenkins said, will be monitoring the site and recovering any significant artifacts that are unearthed from the location of the former Elam stand at the Forks of the Road.

Jenkins said once the national cemetery was created, burials from the Forks of the Road were taken to the cemetery. She said she hoped all of the burials were moved from the site, but if any remains were found during construction, state law would require the construction be stopped so the Mississippi Department of Archives and History could investigate.

Kelly said until talking to people in the community like Friends of the Forks of the Road Coordinator Ser Seshsh Ab Heter-Clifford M. Boxley and Jenkins he had no idea the property the company purchased had historical value.

Boxley, who first learned of the development two years ago, has been protesting the development of the site with signs around town and various public protests.

Boxley said the entire community has a responsibility to ensure the Forks of the Road history is preserved, and he said he believes a long-term plan to ensure preservation of the site needs to be in place.

“It speaks not just to the African-American history in this area, but to the history of all the people here, the antebellum estates and the Old South,” he said.

City officials have repeatedly expressed concern about the “sneaky” way they said the development went through the approval process.

Nix said there is nothing in city planning records that indicated the housing development site was a historic site, which is why it was not initially questioned.

Jenkins said the research on the proposed site was new research that was done after the developers had already purchased the property.

Commissioner Karen Stubbs asked at the meeting how the city could prevent another situation like the housing development on historic property.

Jenkins said one of the real challenges at the site is that most historic preservation ordinances were written to preserve sites with standing buildings. The Forks of the Road site is significant, Jenkins said, not because of any buildings that were there but because what happened on the land.

Jenkins said most of the city’s historic district lines follow national historic registry districts.

Nix said going forward, the city should have some type of record or ordinance that recognizes the Forks of the Road site and helps preserve it in the future.

“A lot of people are emotionally involved in this,” he said. “This touches a lot of heartstrings.”