by Calvin Ishee
In a classic battle of private property rights versus government rights, the city board of aldermen voted unanimously to overturn the Pass Christian Historic Commission’s refusal to allow a property owner to demolish their own home. According to “Skipper” Samson, Attorney for the owners of the house, the house was hit by lighting on August 5th of 2019. Due to the scope of the fire itself as well as the thousands and thousands of gallons pumped into the house, the damage was deemed too cost prohibitive to repair.
The house was originally constructed in the 1960’s and was up for sale at a price of $6.5 million when the fire occurred. In fact the owners had been trying to sell the house for over seven years. The insurance company as well as an outside consultant surmised that to meet the replacement demand of the Commission, the owners would have to pay at least $1 million dollars over and beyond what the insurance company was willing to pay. Samson asserted that this would create an unnecessary financial burden on the home owners.
Samson also added that the Harrison County Tax Assessor had already removed this house from its tax rolls, meaning the house had zero value. Samson then mentioned a document written by Pass Christian Code Official Tom Duffy which stated, “I have inspected the home and have determined the house to be damaged to the point that it is not reasonable to fix the existing structure. I believe it to be damaged beyond repair.”
Ward 3 Alderman Anthony Hall asked “what reason was given by the Commission to deny the owners request? I didn’t see anything in the minutes” explaining their decision. City Planner Danit Simon expressed that the Commission did not take the economic costs of the owner into consideration, only their perceived historical value of this home. Simon commented further, “The City has to ask if it is a special building for the community and is the building worth fighting for?” Herein lies one of the challenges of the rights of private property owners versus a commission that may have competing interests. After everyone was given an opportunity to speak, City Attorney Malcolm Jones read the guidelines governing this matter which stated the City could not force the private property owners to pay more than the value of the property. He further stated it was unconstitutional to place an economic hardship on owners whereby they lose money and advised the Board that they must take financial input into consideration when making their decision.
An attendee at the BOA meeting was overheard as saying, “What’s wrong with these people? Maybe it’s time to replace some or all of the people on this Commission”. The Commission is chaired by Margaret Jean Kalif and comprised of Anne James, Amy Wood, Carol Church, Danny Taylor, Dorothy Roberts, Jenny Nicaud, Melissa Wagner and Scott Naugle as members. So the question remains, should property owners have the authority to make decisions for themselves about their own property or should government planners have the say so? This battle goes on throughout the country on a regular basis.
Following this decision, the Board of Alderman (BOA) addressed the re-opening of the outdoor basketball courts, Randolph Center as well as the Splash Pad. Ward 2 Alderwoman Regina Charlot expressed her continued concerns regarding the COVID 19 virus and stated she would not vote to reopen the basketball courts.
Mayor Chipper McDermott patiently listened to each Board Member, however during the discussion he commented that the “Splash pad is opening tomorrow, you can vote on it, but it’s opening tomorrow.” Ward 3 Alderman Anthony Hall commented, “you had me until you tried to strong arm me. I don’t like to be strong armed.” The Mayor retorted that Jones told him that he didn’t even have to bring this issue to the Board but chose to do so.
Mayor McDermott further commented that he had heard from many residents demanding that the Splash Pad be reopened, but in the end the Mayor apologized for his comments and the Board voted 3 for, 1 against and 1 absenting to allow all facilities to reopen. As requested by Jones, the City will follow the guidelines recently ordered by Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves.
In the personnel arena, the Board ended furloughs for the following City employees: Bret Bentz, Recreation Director; Bridget Daniels, Court Clerk; Karent Rivers, Records Clerk and Johnnie Jones, Animal Control Officer, both from the Police Department and Nyla Waggoner, Water Clerk. According to City officials, the only City employee remaining on furlough is Marie Lamb, Senior Citizens Director.
After a very lengthy Executive Session, the Board voted unanimously to approve Police Chief Daren Freeman’s recommendation to terminate Police Officer David Hart for cause. According to City Attorney Malcolm Jones, “the decision was based on multiple acts of insubordination, failure to correct a police report in a timely manner, wearing a PCPD police patch in an unauthorized manner and other reprimands and wrongs” Furthermore, Hart had been previously demoted and suspended by the BOA.
In a much shorter Executive Session, the Board approved Fire Chief Dwight Gordon’s recommendation to accept a voluntary downgrade from Lieutenant to Firefighter by Lt Jason Windham. This action will also result in a reduction in pay and no reason was given for the voluntary downgrade request.
The Board approved financial investments of tax dollars on the 2020 Crusin the Coast in the amount of $25,000; $10,740 to replace old and antiqued laptops for Mayor, Elected Officials, City Attorney and City Clerk; and $185,103.22 in Claims Docket expenses.
As an addendum the BOA approved July 16th as the date for hosting Jeepin the Coast in the Pass. The event will be held on Davis Avenue and is part of the overall Jeepin the Coast event that will be held on July 18th.
Mayor McDermott commented, “I think this is a very good thing to do”. Although Alderwoman Charlot expressed her ongoing concerns, the Board voted 4-1 to approve this event. The only dissenting vote came from Charlot.
Public comments included a request from Pass Christian resident and business owner Dorothy Roberts requesting the Board take action to remove debris from drainage sewers on Davis Avenue.
Roberts expressed that she had recently made a huge financial investment in her business and didn’t want to see it negatively impacted by flooding caused by clogged up drainage sewers.
Betty Sparkman rose to promote this Saturday’s Unity March and Prayer which is scheduled to start 9 a.m. The event will begin forming at 8 a.m. in Jones Park and will end at the steps of the Gulfport Police Department.
Sparkman stated that she hopes “to get a good showing from Pass Christian” residents.
Mayor McDermott concluded the meeting by thanking Hunter Dawkins, Owner/Publisher of the Gazebo Gazette for his Pass Christian Pirates Class of 2020 Magazine. The Mayor commented, “Hunter did a lot of work and did a good job”.
According to Ward 3 Alderman Anthony Hall, a group of Pass Christian residents are having a Prayer Walk in honor of Mr George Floyd this Saturday at 9 a.m. The group will start forming up between 8 and 8:30 a.m on the Second Street side of Memorial Park and will then head west to Hiern.
They’ll then go to Scenic Drive and back to Memorial Park. Support will be provided by the Chief of Police and his Officers will help with traffic control. Everyone is welcome and are encouraged to follow CDC guidelines for group gatherings and to wear a mask.