by Calvin Ishee, Associate Publisher

During the recent primary season for the 2021 Municipal Election, a recurring theme from local candidates was the need for economic development within the City and more specifically the need for development on North Street. Right on cue Pass Christian residents Jay and Shannon Fuller pitched their vision for their property on 650 East North Street to the Pass Christian Planning Commission, at their meeting held on April 27, 2021.

In 2019, the Fullers initially purchased 100 acres of land, most of it classified as wetlands, in hopes of building a single family residence and to have a place for their children to roam and explore.  However over time their vision evolved into not only a primary residence, but also an eco-friendly project that benefits the general public as well.

Shannon Moore stated that “once we became more familiar with the property, we soon realized the importance of sharing our tidal marsh and coastal wetlands with our community. Our mission is to protect and restore the natural habitat and eco system at Marsh Landing. We would like to provide a place for people to enjoy outdoor activities and reconnect with nature. In the future we would like to advocate educational programs and special events that highlight this beautiful area.”

This project will be completed in phases with the first phase including the construction of the primary family residence, a fifty site campground and outdoor amenities such as kayak rentals, wooded trails and a marsh viewing area.  Eventually, other additions will be made as the need warrants.

Representing the family was Pass Christian Planning Commissioner and local architect Leah Watters whereas before making her presentation, Watters recused herself from voting on this matter.

Watters commented that “North Street was kind of a grab bag that we didn’t know what to do with after Hurricane Katrina”.  She pointed out that this is a great project for this area considering that 78% of this property is wetlands. In the past year they’ve had  a study conducted including biologists and the findings were quite interesting. She then effectively explained and outlined the justification for a variance change that would allow this project to go forward.

She then added, “This is a great opportunity for North Street. Not only do we feel it’s an economic driver but we feel like it’s providing an amenity.”

Basically, this property will be developed into a nature preserve that includes trails, marsh viewing areas, canoe and paddle boat rentals, legacy farm and children’s garden, outdoor weddings, elevated cabins, 50 campsites, swimming pool, dog park, playground comfort stations, community fire pit, sufficient buffers and 24 hour on-site management. Furthermore the owners commented that these facilities will be open to the public.

Commissioner Amy Wood commented, “I think this is a very admirable plan, the thought that’s gone into this and the appreciation of nature. I think it’s exciting.”  Additionally, Commissioner Margaret Jean Kalif added, “I think this is probably the best use of this land and you couldn’t have a better architect than Leah Watters.”

The commission voted unanimously to recommend approval at the next Mayor and Board of Alderman meeting. After the vote was taken the decision was met with a round of applause from those in attendance.

The positive vibe in the room changed when the Commission received another “request for forgiveness “ from a builder that made a mistake after construction had already begun. The issue at hand was the location of the garage. When the project was originally approved it included a garage located on the side of the house.  However, the builder later realized that a live oak tree and fire hydrant hampered access to the proposed side garage.

Commissioner Kalif expressed that she was tired of people coming in and asking for forgiveness. She added that “My dilemma is this, people come in and they know what our laws are, they know what the setbacks are. They build these things and then they come to us to and say whoops, we made a mistake, would you just forgive us and let this slide. I’m kind of weary of it because it happens almost at every meeting and people want forgiveness instead of following our laws in the first place.”

Her point was that if the City had a law it needs to either enforce it or do away with it. Although the request was approved, Commissioner Kalif was the only dissenting vote because she wanted her thoughts on thIs matter properly reflected in the record.

Tension in the room grew exponentially when RV Park Developer Don Gill asked the Commission for a variance to reduce the front setback on his property located at the juncture of Henderson Avenue and Earl Street, from 25 feet to 10 feet. This project was initially approved by the Planning Commission on December 30, 2019 and the Board of Alderman on January 21, 2020.

Both approvals included Gill’s previously agreed upon 25 foot setback.

Planning Commission Chair Tom Phares pointedly asked Gill, “Did you or did you not agree to 25 feet?”  Gill answered “That was Danit but yes we agreed, yes”.  Phares responded “So you agreed to 25 feet, we made a deal.” Gill replied yes but he still wanted a variance.

Several other concerns were mentioned by the commissioners including problems with drainage being reversed from the original approved drainage plan as well as the clear cutting of some trees in spite of agreeing that no clear cutting would be done.

After several somewhat heated exchanges between Gill and the Commission, Gill’s variance request was unanimously denied.  City Attorney Malcolm Jones told the Commissioners that although it was within their power to deny this request, he recommended that their motion and minutes reflect their reasons for disapproving Gill’s request.

After further discussion, the Commission asked Jones to research ways of preventing these types of things from happening as well as potential penalties for those violating City building codes and ordinances.

Gill can still seek relief from this decision by appealing to the Board of Alderman or if he so chooses, he can seek a legal remedy through the court system.