By KELLY DANIELS
Four of Starkville’s public streets are now sidewalk-exempted zones, at least for the time.
If property owners wish to develop areas along Miley Drive and Pollard, Industrial Park and Airport Roads — all areas in what is designated as the city’s industrial park, they won’t have to abide by the requirements of the city’s sidewalk ordinance under a 4-3 vote by the Board of Aldermen Tuesday night.
But the exemption may be short-lived as Mayor Parker Wiseman warned the board before members called for their first public hearing a month ago that he would veto approval of relieving what is called the Industrial Park from sidewalk requirements.
While creating an “exclusionary zone,” officials ran into a developer who asked for exemption of his property before the board even voted.
Chuck Scarborough, who owns land near Lynn Lane and Industrial Park Road, said the board would be practicing “blatant discrimination” if his land was not included in the new zone. The Industrial Park is zoned manufacturing and is filled with office uses along with manufacturing uses.
“I am in the same location and the zoning is the same,” Scarborough said.
Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver, who proposed the exclusionary zone, asked if including Scarborough’s land in the zone before voting would be legal. City Attorney Chris Latimer replied by shaking his head “no.”
The push for exempting the industrial park areas from the city’s 2009 ordinance mandating sidewalks with new development began after Rudy Johnson, director of the Golden Triangle Planning and Development District, asked for his proposed development to be an exception without having filed an appeal for a variance. Johnson, who plans to build a facility that would house the Senior Enrichment Center, promised publicly to take his business out of the city if not granted his request.
“The way I view it is the Industrial Park is there to for job creation and economic development,” Johnson said, adding he would like to build a $1.6 million facility and later a facility that would create more jobs.
“Our payroll is $5.1 million. Before I retire or get run off, I want it to be $7.5 million. That’s a lot of money for this community to be fighting over a $25,000 sidewalk.”
Johnson offered to build a sidewalk with his development if the city agreed to connect it.
More than two months ago, the aldermen ordered the Transportation Committee to hold public hearings on a variance process and research a reasonable revision to the ordinance that would include that process.
But before the committee could report its findings to the board and make a recommendation, Carver proposed excluding the Industrial Park from the ordinance, circumventing the process and arguing that the board does not have to approve committee recommendations.
Carver also contended that while the committee was made up of a “very very smart group of individuals,” it had no private sector-representatives.
“Should I try to please private sector people who create jobs in the city? You bet,” Carver said, addressing publicly stated claims that the board was changing its policy because of one individual.
A “disheartened” vice mayor, Ward 2 Alderwoman Sandra Sistrunk, deplored the Johnson vs. Sidewalks debate that involved what she called the “political use” of local seniors.
“To me, what we’re doing tonight sets a very dangerous precedent that we’re governing on the fly,” she said, advising against setting policy to benefit a single project.
A majority of local citizens who spoke during Tuesday’s public hearing opposed the amendment, asking for consideration of pedestrians, residents who cannot afford automobiles and the long-term vision of interconnectivity throughout Starkville.
Others took Johnson’s side, stating that his project should be helped, not hindered.
Jacky Dorsey said that Johnson’s proposed site has no adjacent sidewalks.
“We all know that I’m 72 and, I promise you, if I reach 95 there won’t be any,” he said.
Jim McKell, founding volunteer of the Senior Enrichment Center, explained that sidewalks within two blocks of City Hall are dangerous.
“Let’s think about maintaining sidewalks as well as building new sidewalks,” he said. “I ask you for reasonable and rational decisions.”
Mike Okhuysen supported the amendment arguing that a variance process is needed, while Nick Wilson argued for a comprehensive variance process based on objectivity.
Opposing the amendment, transportation specialist Dr. Bethany Stich presented a map of recommended street improvements drawn last summer by members of the Transportation Committee and the Comprehensive Planning Committee.
The map shows that sidewalks and multi-use striping were recommended for Industrial Park Road and its neighboring streets.
Jim Gafford, who chairs the Transportation Committee, argued that many non-industrial uses are cited within the new zone.
“Moreover, the PDD project itself is nonindustrial,” he said. “No objectively reasoned burden has been established by any development in the proposed exclusionary zone to date.”
Former Starkville in Motion president Devon Brenner said the board should trust the process of the Transportation Committee’s research on variances or else: “Every developer who wants to save $25,000 out of $1.6 million is going to ask for a variance, except for those who want sidewalks out of the goodness of their hearts.”
Kenny Langley said that realization of long term vision takes a very long time and asked the board to look further ahead than 10 years.
“This issue is are certain developers or any developer willing to give .01 percent of the total cost of their development to say they want more?” he said.
Chris Gottbrath, member of the Transportation Committee, said that sidewalk-free roads do not deter people from walking but put them at risk.
With one minute left in the hearing, Alvin Turner limped to the podium and remembered aloud how he was seriously injured by a vehicle while walking on a sidewalk-free street.
“The disabled, the handicapped, people that can’t drive — Do you really care?,” he said, “or are you just trying to please people.”
Editor’s note: Additional actions of the Starkville Board of Aldermen will be reported in Thursday’s edition of the Starkville Daily News.