A conversation with Bernie Giessner on Ridgeland zoning

Bernie Giessner, chairman of the Ridgeland zoning board, has been part of the board for the past 17 years and chairman for the past 16. Dedicated to the city’s communities, Giessner facilitates biweekly meetings and breaks tie votes when necessary. Sun Staff Writer Megan Phillips recently sat down with Giessner to discuss the board and its role with the city.


What all goes before the zoning board?

“If someone wants to rezone their property or if they wish to apply for a conditional use or conditional variance then it comes before the zoning board.”


What request do you receive the most?

“Probably dimensional variances and conditional uses.”


When the commission is deciding on a case, what are the factors you’re looking at, personally?

“The (official city) zoning ordinance. See, we don’t write the ordinance, we don’t write rules or (regulations) or anything like that. We basically listen to the petition and apply what we know from the zoning ordinance.”


Does Ridgeland receive more residential or commercial cases?

“That’s a hard one really to differentiate because sometimes the residential conditional use, variance or whatever could involve 30 properties. Whereas industrial or commercial may only be one property, typically. It’s a fairly decent mix.”


What’s been your most controversial case?

“Probably the one that took the most time was the Butler Snow issue. It was most controversial in so far as we wound up with impasse. In other words, we had motions but they all had to be tabled because no one seconded them. With everything tabled we essentially passed it to mayor and board. It was a semi-judicial type of hearing, as all zoning board meetings are. All the minutes were there, all the recordings, the court reporter and everything was there so we submitted that to mayor and board. We didn’t make formal recommendation because there was no vote. I think it was another four-hour meeting for the mayor and board of aldermen.”


How have you seen Ridgeland change?

“I’ve seen lot changes here where I am: the growth, the infrastructure has improved, the widening of the interstate, Renaissance. These have been very positive types of things that have occurred, including the Butler Snow building. There’s been a lot of upscale development. And the housing has been the same, such as Bridgewater and places like that. They’re the things I notice because I live close by them.”


How has the zoning process changed?

“It really hasn’t changed. We still have public meetings and participation. The biggest change has been how we get information. Initially, we would go to a meeting, and the petition would be there in print. We’d read it and have public discussion. Now, we get them prior to meeting by email. We’re well informed four to five days before the meeting and can then research it.”


How have the land use plan and zoning ordinances changed?

“There was a major upgrade to ordinance about a couple of years ago. We now have a new ordinance that was passed. I did not write or evaluate very much of the old one and compare it to new ordinance, so I can’t tell you how much has changed. That’s not what we would do anyway. We take what has been generated and approved by board and evaluate zoning issues based on what’s in the ordinance.”


In Ridgeland, there have been a lot of controversial issues: Butler Snow, Costco and Renaissance. Is this job a lot more controversial or a lot harder than you thought it was going to be?

“For me it doesn’t really come into play. See, I don’t get into the politics. All I do, essentially, is facilitate zoning board meetings. In fact, I rarely vote.”


When do you vote?

“If there’s a tie, and I think there’s been one tie in the many years I’ve been on the board.”


How many years have you been on the board?

“Seventeen, and I’ve been chairman for quite some time (16 years). And that’s where the title comes from. As chairman, I facilitate the meeting and if there’s a tie, I will break it.”


How many members are on the board?

“I think there’s eight, eight total.”


Are all those positions filled?

“Most of the time, yes. That’s in transition sometimes. Not everyone shows up all the time. They may be ill, away, something like that.”


How long do members usually stay on the board, and why do they leave?

“I don’t know if there’s a typical time. I’ve known some to be there one or two meetings, and I’ve known others to be there for many years. So, that’s very variable. The reason they leave may be personal reasons — they move away, they don’t want to serve anymore — or the alderman and/or mayor who has appointed them has decided they want someone else to represent them. See, we are appointed positions. We don’t run, anything like that. I can get a call from (Ward 1 Alderman) Ken Heard today saying, ‘Bernie, I’ve decided to replace you.’ Fine, I’m at his disposal.”


So how do they know who to appoint when they’re looking for appointees?

“You’d have to ask the aldermen what they would look for. I’m sure everyone has a different perspective. Probably people they know and probably people they know have the concern of the community in mind.”


How often does the zoning board meet?

“Usually, it’s twice a month if there is an issue. It’s the Thursday after the first Tuesday and then two Thursdays after that. But there’s not always an issue so sometimes we may not meet for two or three or four meeting cycles. It’s very dependent on who wants to rezone, apply for conditional use and/or a variance. Some of the meetings, there’ll be more than one item. A lot of times it’s one topic. Sometimes it could be four or five petitions that we have to deal with.”


How long will a meeting with four or five petitions last?

“Possibly an hour. Again, depending on the complexity, who shows up, etc. There’s no opposition if it’s a relatively straight-forward, simple, they’re very quick. The Butler Snow lasted for four-plus hours. Just depends on the topic.”


Where do you meet?

“At the city hall in Ridgeland.”


Is the public welcome to attend?

“Oh, yes, it’s open to the public. Notice has to be put in the paper. Plus, a sign is always displayed on the property that’s going to either be rezoned or for the dimensional use or variance. And if it’s a rezoning, notices have to go out in writing with certified return mail to certain a area — I forget how many feet from the property — so that close-by neighbors have to be notified. And yes, everybody’s invited.”


Does the board get a lot of calls from people concerned about zoning projects?

“Most of it’s email. I have been called a few times, but not much and I usually get it over email.”


If someone calls to say they want the board to approve or not approve a project, or you get an angry call, what do you tell them?

“I just recommend that they show up to the meeting and express their concerns, because I will not deal with it prior to the meeting.”


What’s the process of a case once it goes before the zoning board?

“When there is a zoning meeting and when whatever is presented is presented, we hear both sides, anyone for, all those against. Then there’s a vote. That vote is not a final decision. It’s actually a recommendation made to the mayor and board of aldermen.”


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