By NATHAN GREGORY
Residents of the Green Oaks subdivision flooded the confines of Starkville City Hall’s courtroom Tuesday and pleaded their case to the board of aldermen that the right decision was made in closing off entrances from Stark Road to their neighborhood in 1999.
A majority of the board either didn’t agree with them or didn’t vote, meaning a proposal to remove the emergency access gate on the Stark Road end of Douglas McArthur Drive and provide signage prohibiting non-emergency vehicles from using that entrance passed in a 3-2-2 vote, despite the best efforts of the spirited complainants.
Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk, Ward 4 Alderman Richard Corey and Ward 6 Alderman Roy A. Perkins voted in favor of removing the gate. Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver and Ward 3 Alderman Eric Parker voted in opposition. Ward 5 Alderman Jeremiah Dumas and Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn abstained.
Despite the item receiving a necessary amount of approval, Mayor Parker Wiseman stated his intentions to veto it.
The item was modified to reopen only the Douglas McArthur entrance. A previous version of the board’s agenda attached in the e-packet lists that item as a motion to reopen all three streets and provide access for all motorists to use the entrances.
The most popular reasons Green Oaks residents provided for not making any sort of change were safety concerns, potential increases in crime, potential increases in traffic volume and lowering of property values.
Residents also argued that motorists would ignore emergency-personnel-only signs and use the reopened entrance anyway if there is not constant police presence on site. One such resident was Lewis Jordan.
“I wish someone on the board could please explain to me and the rest of these residents here how that is beneficial,” Jordan said. “Who is going to monitor that cut-through point to ensure that people are not illegally cutting through?”
Jordan also mentioned he had heard the gate at times did not function properly and asked the board who is responsible for maintenance of the gate. Wiseman said there was specific delegate of that duty and later encouraged that in the event of a gate issue people could notify him.
“I do not know how the gate is functioning right now, but I’ll also acknowledge as mayor of this city, I have a responsibility and the buck stops with me to make sure if we’ve got a gate there that is intended to make sure emergency access is on Stark Road, it’s my responsibility to make sure it does function,” Wiseman said.
Michelle Tehan, a former resident of the subdivision, was struck and seriously injured by a motorist before the board adopted closure of the entrances in 1999.
“There was someone passing through on Pin Oak Drive. They were actually trying to maneuver their way and figure out how to pass through to Stark Road. They missed the turn … going 35 miles an hour. They never stopped,” Tehan said. “They actually came up into a neighbor’s yard as they were turning and hit me … My head hit that windshield. I broke it from the top left corner to the bottom right … I know of other children as I grew up in Green Oaks, at least one other girl was hit by a car.”
Former alderman Sumner Davis spoke on behalf of his parents-in-law, who live on Douglas McArthur Drive and were not able to attend. He referenced being on the board when the gate was first built.
“I asked (Starkville Police) Chief (David) Lindley when I was on the board how can we monitor it … unless you park somebody there 24-7, it’s not going to happen,” Davis said. “To fix the problem we came up with the gate solution. If it needs maintenance it needs maintenance, but don’t tear it down.”
Sistrunk said while recently driving in the area, she saw a “compelling reason why you might want an additional access point.”
“Somebody on (Miss.) Highway 12 … managed to launch themselves off of (Miss.) Highway 12 and into a monument on the side of the road there, effectively backing up traffic for quite some distance,” she said. “Had that happened closer to Green Oaks, (the accident) could have effectively blocked emergency traffic getting into the neighborhood from (Miss.) Highway 12.”
Perkins, who was on the board when the resolution to close the streets was unanimously passed, said he later regretted his decision.
“I had reservations that night, and I reluctantly voted for the closure of the street. I do feel that vote was an error. One of the things that came across to us back … in 1999 was that there would be extensive traffic coming through Green Oaks from a development that had not occurred to the western end of the Green Oaks location,” he said. “I have had concerns about my vote … and that is clearly reflected in the minutes. There were three subsequent votes … There was a vote taken on Jan. 4, 2000 … that would give (then Mayor Mack) Rutledge the authority proceed further with the closure of those roads … Alderman Perkins voted ‘nay’ because I had realized the ‘yay’ vote was the wrong vote to take.”
Perkins said the proposal takes into account the best interest of citizens.
“We can improve the emergency access. I’ve seen … documentation from public safety employees that indicates that improving emergency access will allow to have greater access to Green Oaks residents for an emergency situation. It is my opinion that this would promote the health, safety and welfare of the residents of the area by improving the access,” he said. “By supporting this motion what it does is it removes any potential liability that may exist or that may arise with respect to any failure of emergency personnel to be able to access Green Oaks subdivision from the western entrance from Stark Road for emergency purposes.”
Perkins added that he was fundamentally opposed to shutting off access to neighborhood entrances on public roads.
“These streets are paid by taxpayer dollars and it’s not in the best interest to close any street. That’s why did everything I could to reverse my decision,” Perkins said. “It’s not good public policy.”
Carver questioned the real intention behind hastily introducing and attempting to pass the measure and said doing so would turn Green Oaks into “Highway 12 Alternate.”
“Is it public safety? No, that’s not true. Do the gates not work? No, that’s not true. We haven’t proved any of that tonight, so it’s hearsay to this point,” Carver said. “What’s changed since … 1999? About 450-480 more homes have been built. Is that a situation we should look at? Yes. If it was dangerous enough in 1999, do you think it’s more dangerous with almost 500 more homes being added? Yes.”
Dumas said he abstained from voting because he has questions regarding the legality of making any change in that area.
“I completely agree that it is awful public policy to close public roads. I fundamentally agree with the idea that those roads should have never been closed,” Dumas said. “On the emergency access side I’m still not convinced legally whether or not it would be best to open them. Those are taxpayer streets and they should be maintained as such, but I’m still not sure on the emergency side.”
Parker said as elected officials, aldermen should not abstain from voting when issues regarding the safety and welfare of residents arise.
“We get paid very little money to be up here, but we do get paid to vote.”
If Wiseman vetoes the measure, Perkins said he will call for an item to override it on the agenda for the board’s next meeting Sept. 26.
“I’ve heard (intents to veto) through the years from many mayors, but that does not preclude me from doing my job as an alderman,” Perkins said. “There have been other key issues that have arisen during the course of this term … where the mayor has indicated that he would not get involved in a particular key issue because he believed it was a board matter.”