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Officials: City development code does not allow new bars downtown

 

NATCHEZ — Prospective business owners looking to open a bar in historic downtown Natchez are out of luck.

At least for now, city officials say, until a section of the development code can be reviewed for potential changes to allow bars.

Historically, the development code has permitted downtown bars by special exception, meaning developers would go through a special approval process with the city.

All of downtown falls under B-2 or B-3 historic zoning districts.

When the development code was amended in December 2014, however, the code was changed to reflect that no bars could open downtown, not even by special exception.

The issue was recently brought to light after Natchez resident Jeremy Houston submitted an application to the city to open a business at 415 Franklin St., which is in the B-3 district. Houston, who also owns Miss-Lou Heritage Group & Tours, said the establishment would be similar to local bars and nightclubs open during the day and night, serving as a music venue with food and alcoholic beverages.

On the day the Natchez Planning Commission was set to hear Houston’s application, City Planner Riccardo Giani discovered a clerical error in the planning department’s code that contradicted the amended code. In the department’s code, bars were allowed by special exception in the B-3 central business district. In the amended code, however, they were not.

“I, and I alone, am taking responsibility of this error and the timing in which I discovered the error,” Giani said. “Myself and the planning commission will be taking steps to ensure that the current code is exactly the code that was adopted to avoid another mix-up.”

Giani and other city officials say they had no idea the code did not permit downtown bars until the error was discovered.

Multiple bars are currently open downtown and were grandfathered in when the development code was changed, Giani said. Since the code has been amended, the city has heard applications from prospective downtown bar owners, including an application that was denied to open a bar in former Dimples location on Main Street in the B-3 district.

The city hired former city planner Phil Walker of the Nashville-based The Walker Collaborative firm to revamp the code, which was adopted in 2014. Prohibiting downtown bars was not included in his recommendation to the city for the amended code, Walker said.

“When it came to downtown, it was fairly permissive in that it allowed a lot of things,” Walker said. “One of the things that makes downtown so unique is that there is a rich mixture of uses. … Restaurants, bars, those kind of establishments are pretty fundamental to downtown.

Walker said he was surprised to discover that downtown bars were not permitted in the amended code.

He said, however, it is not uncommon for changes to occur throughout the process before the final code is adopted.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis, whose ward covers part of downtown, said she does not remember the decision being made to prohibit bars downtown in the development code.

If those kinds of changes were to be made to the code, Arceneaux-Mathis said, they should have been discussed and carefully considered.

Former Mayor Butch Brown, who was mayor at the time the code was changed, said he does not remember a discussion about bars being prohibited and thinks the change in the code is likely an error.

“I would have remembered that,” he said. “I don’t think that would have ever been a discussion item.”

Arceneaux-Mathis said that section of the code needs to be studied as well as Walker’s recommendations.

“Then we need to have a discussion about it,” she said.

Mayor Darryl Grennell, who was not mayor when the code was amended, said it is certainly not his intention as mayor for the development code to stifle downtown business development.

“There’s a question in terms of how did that really get in there,” Grennell said. “It’s not the intent of this administration to prohibit bars in the downtown area. Natchez is a tourist destination. I mean, we need to have some entertainment. I’m not saying we should be overcrowded with bars, but we’ve always had a few downtown.”

Giani said he is hesitant to amend the code during the revision of the downtown comprehensive plan, an effort currently being led the nonprofit FOR Natchez, which has hired Walker’s firm to create the plan.

“I am hesitant because the downtown plan that is being worked on is the product of community goals and visions for the downtown,” Giani said. “If we amend the code before the plan’s adoption, one document could contradict the other. It’s kind of a waiting game now, unless the community really feels that we need to amend the code or the permitted use table.”

Houston said the code as it is now discourages business owners like himself who want to invest money in downtown from doing so.

“All I’ve got to say is the City of Natchez needs to hurry and make a decision,” he said. “Not only is downtown hurting, but the City of Natchez is hurting.”

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