Costco a factor in city elections

Ridgeland will hold an election coming on the second of May. Customarily, a municipal election in small-town Mississippi ranks just under a charity pancake breakfast for sheer spellbinding excitement.

That may not be the case in Ridgeland this year. A familiar issue is at stake: whether the people of Ridgeland, through elected representatives, or property developers from other cities are going to run things.

Developers are in business to make money. Unless you were blinded by the Bernie Sanders campaign, you understand and accept that. The trouble comes when developers call all the shots, and that appears to be the case in Ridgeland

Questionable development practices, as a hot current events topic, emerged following the exposure of the secret proposal involving a Costco store and service station. Twenty-five hundred residents signed a petition opposing it, but you can see a 40-acre site on Highland Colony Parkway south of the roundabout being cleared for the giant retailer right now.

There is a minor problem, however. The developers have not waited for a judge’s decision on whether the rezoning requested by Costco was properly executed.

Ridgeland officials maintain that no rezoning took place, saying only that certain amendments to the zoning code text were made. Emails available for your perusal at Northsidesun.com tell a somewhat different story.

Developers often request zoning changes; it’s when requests become effectively mandatory that residents have a problem. The city’s one mayor and seven aldermen may have a problem on May 2. And the reason goes beyond the Costco issue.

You may not know that Renaissance at Colony Park is a “lifestyle center,” something we simpletons call a shopping center; it also enjoys qualified resort status conferred by the Mississippi Alcoholic Beverage Control board.

This puzzles me, largely because I’ve never seen anyone sunbathing or water skiing at Renaissance. I do know that the resort status allows my favorite breakfast spot, Another Broken Egg, to serve drinks with its morning waffles.

With me so far? Renaissance at present has “mixed use development” zoning that allows liquor sales until midnight. The developers of Renaissance, in February, petitioned to have their “lifestyle center” made part of a new overlay district that would include some undeveloped land north of Renaissance.

And guess what? The overlay district, according to the petition, would allow fast-food outlets and any number of brewpubs that could sell liquor until 2 a.m.

I’m sure there were times in my misspent youth when I thought legal whiskey for 19 hours out of 24 was a cool idea. Now, as a practicing adult, I echo the football coach who said, “Not much good happens after midnight.”

The petition to create a new overlay district to join the several already within the boundaries of Ridgeland was withdrawn. Was it to correct spelling errors or perhaps because the idea of alcohol sales until 2 a.m. might energize some voters?

Our governing body in Ridgeland consists of the mayor and seven aldermen. In the Costco matter, which involved multiple public hearings at which residents spoke against re-zoning, the predictable vote became four to three. Aldermen Chuck Gautier, Kevin Holder, Scott Jones, and Wesley Hamlin voted the developer ticket, while aldermen Ken Heard, D.I. Smith, and Brian Ramsey voted the citizens’ ticket.

I worry that out-of-town developers, based on voting records, could apparently get a majority of our elected governors to shave their heads and wear clown costumes. The majority’s stance on zoning serves as evidence.

Costco wanted rezoning. The governors, after an embarrassing false start, obliged. But they refused to admit they had rezoned anything. “We just changed the text of the zoning code,” they claimed.

Taking that into account, I have devised a simple test. Any elected official, with a minimum of preparation, should be able to pass it. Question 1: Does the zoning code permit Company A to build on parcel X? Question 2: Did the zoning code permit Company A to build on Parcel X in April of 2016?

If the answers are not “Yes” and “No,” the zoning was changed. Worse, it was changed in the face of generally accepted rezoning practices. First, a proposed zoning change must include evidence that the character of a neighborhood has changed. Second, the change should result in a benefit to the neighborhood.

I don’t believe that the Costco project and the proposed overlay district meet those criteria. Others don’t either. Candidates opposing the mayor and three of the four developer-leaning aldermen have filed for the May 2 election. We’ll see how they do.

William Jeanes is a Northsider.

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