By KELLY DANIELS
Starkville aldermen split with public opinion Tuesday, setting a series of forums before they consider exempting four streets from regulations of the city’s sidewalk ordinance.
Despite warnings of a veto by Mayor Parker Wiseman, the Board of Aldermen voted 4-3 to hold two public hearings to consider exempting an area where the Golden Triangle Planning and Development District plans to build a facility for the Senior Enrichment Center.
The split approval comes after the GTPDD’s executive director, Rudy Johnson, threatened to move the agency’s offices from Starkville if he had to build a sidewalk with the new Senior Center.
“I think this is what’s best for the city,” said Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver, who proposed an amendment to the sidewalk ordinance that could relieve Industrial Road, Pollard Road Miley Drive and Airport Road from obligations to provide sidewalks with future developments.
The call for public hearings came after Wiseman warned he would veto the amendment if approved.
In recent months, the Board of Aldermen directed its appointed volunteer Transportation Committee to listen to public opinion and develop a fair variance process in line with those of other municipalities, thereby answering the question for developers of when there should be exceptions to the standard requirement of sidewalks for all new developments or when a property renovation constitutes more than 50 percent of the property’s worth.
“Either this proposed amendment does not address that question, or it does not provide a solution that I think would stand the test of time,” Wiseman said.
The board would need a 5-2 vote to override a veto by Wiseman.
Vice Mayor and Ward 2 Alderwoman Sandra Sistrunk, Jeremiah Dumas (who serves as Transportation Committee liaison) and Ward 4 Alderman Richard Corey voted against approving the measure, which came after Dumas, who spoke out against making an ordinance exemption based on “single voices and exclusionary tactic,” reported that Starkville was one of two finalists for a prospective developer, but was heavily scrutinized for its physical infrastructure.
“I think we can’t lose sight of the idea that this whole thing is based on one vocal constituent,” Dumas said.
Sistrunk argued that the industrial park will soon be 50 years old, and its name does not truly describe the area’s uses.
“I would hope that the board tables this for now,” Sistrunk said.
Members of the Transportation Committee, who’ve already conducted two of their own public hearings, addressed what they called disrespect of members’ time and efforts to include an objective variance process in the sidewalk ordinance.
Transportation chair Jim Gafford worried that the board’s proposed exemptions would create “artificial incentive for development without restricting the type of development, would cater to private interest for political expediency and confuse the community on where their comments matter most.
In the spirit of compromise, Gafford said the committee had also discussed incentivization for building sidewalks, which include tax reductions and fee waivers, and exclusionary zones as conversations with the city’s Comprehensive Planning Committee continue.
Transportation specialist Bethany Stich bemoaned the board’s disregard for her time on the committee along with that of her fellow board members.
“This slight might be overlooked by those of us who understand the difficulties and complexities of public service were it not for the fact that it is not simply our time you are wasting,” Stich said.
“We have received numerous e-mails, calls and personal visitations, the preponderance of which ardently support the sidewalk ordinance as is. To add an additional variance process procedure with an additional two public hearings is tantamount to ignoring the 40-plus comments we have already received and the committee which you direct. Furthermore, the variance as written is arbitrary and capricious. It is not based on relevant facts but on suppositions and threats,” Stich said.
Committee member Chris Gottbrath said that pedestrians often put the industrial park to good use and are seen walking on the curb next to 18-wheelers.
“This area is probably more than less in need of sidewalks than other areas of town,” Gottbrath said.
“If we were to exempt that area at the requests of special interests, we’d be placing those special interests’ monetary goals ahead of the safety of the people in my ward.”
Joe Fratesi complained that Tuesday’s proposal sent committee members the message that their time and effort spent on drafting a variance process was not appreciated.
“This current proposal is essentially a slap in the face to the Transportation Committee,” Fratesi said.
“If what the board wants is a variance to allow certain individuals to not have to build sidewalks then that’s what needs to be said.”
Officials supporting the proposal contended that they were trying to attract business and were legally allowed to enumerate four streets exempt from the sidewalk ordinance.
“The city through its governing body has always made amendments to its policies, its ordinances,” Ward 6 Alderman Roy Á. Perkins explained. “It’s nothing new.”
Perkins made a motion to approve holding public hearings on the exemptions based on arguments that the industrial park’s traffic consisted mostly of motorists, that its location was in a remote, non-pedestrian friendly environment and that it was “industrial” in nature, which produced laughter from members of the Transportation Committee. To date, no pedestrian count of the industrial park has been made.
Ward 7 Alderman Henry Vaughn said that the city’s ordinances should not make it difficult for developers to build.
“I thought we were about attracting businesses,” Vaughn said. “I thought we were about bringing business here, not pushing business out.”
Vaughn’s statements produced a response from Dumas, who argued that sound economic development was about quality of life.
“I think anybody from the economic development field will tell you that $100 a linear foot is not going to deter economic development... It’s time to grow up, realize we’re nationally competitive now and have the infrastructure in place to support it,” Dumas said.