Supervisors looking at county’s future

Published 3:59 pm Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The first of several workshops to develop a comprehension plan for the future of Pearl River County and its economic growth was held Tuesday, sometimes with members of the Board of Supervisors agreeing on key points, while at other times, heated discussions ensued over other parts of the plan that, while are important components, are still only in the preliminary stage of development.

What everyone did agree on was that if Pearl River County wanted to succeed economically in the future, it had to be ready, and that readiness depended on a comprehensive plan.

The meeting began with George Carbo, a planner from the Gulfport division of CDM, a worldwide engineering, and construction firm, explaining to board members that the meeting was the first of a series in which they would work with county officials to form a viable plan for Pearl River County’s future.

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After explaining that he was a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners and that he had personally worked with cities such as Gulfport and Biloxi, as well as other Mississippi counties including Hancock county, on their Smart Growth plans, Carbo told board members that he recognized each area was unique.

“I am familiar with the fact that every community is different and one size does not fit all,” said Carbo. “And you, as a board, will set your expectations (for the plan( and what you expect to see out of it.”

Carbo outlined the process to develop the plan, such as exploring what the county wanted to see for economic opportunities, preserving the natural environment and quality of life for residents, land use, and road building.

He then asked board members for their thoughts on the preliminary “Smart Growth” plan.

District 1 supervisor and board president Anthony Hales said that while he had some concerns, he said he felt the most important issue facing the county is its economic growth. “I have some concerns that some things will be imposed on people that they don’t want,” said Hales, “But what most concerns me is our economic growth. Most of the population is in the south end of the county, but it’s coming this way.”

Hales said that following Monday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, he had done some thinking about the issue of mobile home parks and the discussion of a moratorium, and that maybe the county needed to have a plan in place so that when the board was faced with such an issue in the future, they’d be ready to act, not react. “I thought about our discussion on mobile home parks,” said Hales. “And maybe we need to think about when it reaches a certain density, then maybe we can issue a moratorium.

“I want to see development, but some things shouldn’t go in certain places. With past administrations everything has been reactive — we reacted to what has happened. I want us to be pro-active — we know it is coming and we need to be ready,” he said.

Patrick Lee, District 4, agreed with Hales on the issue of zoning, asking though, did the county really want to start getting into zoning laws. “It is a balancing act,” said Lee. “Ten will come to you and say they don’t want you telling them what to do with their property, and then ten others come in complaining about what their neighbors are doing to their property.”

As talks began to center on zoning laws, Carbo reminded board members that they can have smart growth without zoning. “Just because you are planning does not mean you are creating zoning,” said Carbo.

When asked for his opinion on the preliminary plan, Hudson Holliday, District 3, was blunt about the plan’s outline to project where growth may happen and how to address the infrastructural needs.

“You don’t want to know what I think about this crap. We don’t build roads in Pearl River County. In all my years here, I haven’t seen a road built. I’ve seen them paved, or re-surfaced, but not built. What you are trying to do is make an urban plan work in a rural environment,” he said.

Holliday told Carbo that he had been a developer for a number of years and when he looked for land to develop, he looked to see if roads, sewer, and water were viable for the project and that the county had no right to try and regulate that. “I don’t think you have a vision where people are going to live or build. You are taking away people’s property rights. I didn’t trust the board of supervisors in the past to make that decision and I don’t trust them in the future.”

Mickey Lagasse, public relations for CDM, tried to explain to Holliday that “not all developers are good developers,” and that when the ones who were “only out for the dollar” built where it wasn’t viable, the county and the taxpayers would be the ones footing the bill. “When you start taxing your school districts, your post offices, your fire districts because a developer builds a subdivision and all of a sudden you have a road that isn’t wide enough, or now too many students for a school, or you need a sheriff’s sub-station,” said Lagasse, “That is when you are going to have problems.”

He said, “The role of government is to facilitate growth, not control it.”

Carbo, agreed, saying that “the purpose of the plan is not to say you can’t build.”

Holliday told Carbo that he needed to take the “Smart Growth” wording part of the plan and “just throw it away.”

“You keep trying to make something fit that won’t,” said Holliday.

Ed Pinero, Pearl River County’s Director of Planning, tried to bring perspective back to the issue, pointing out that the plan was a work in progress. “We need to have a plan in place to regulate growth,“ said Pinero. “We need a plan for growth; I don’t think zoning is the answer, but what we need is something in place to support (the board of supervisors.) The last thing I want to be involved with is something that stymies growth.”

Hales also tried to steer the discussion back, saying that economic development is a major issue the board needed to address with the plan. He said the county has the “largest number of people over 65 than any other county in Mississippi,” and for that reason, a high tax burden is placed a “small group of people.”

“They are going to end up paying more and I want to ease that burden by economic development,” said Hales.

Holliday said he agreed with Hales that the future of Pearl River county depended on its economic growth and that having a plan for the county’s economic future was needed. He added that while some people of Pearl River County had worked together to clean it up, bring in affordable housing, and making things better, there were still “some people doing some really stupid things.

“To some people in Pearl River County the less government the better,” he said. “Like the Freedom of Speech. I don’t like what some people say, but I don’t want to stop the freedom of speech. I don’t like people burning flags, but it’s freedom of speech.”

Holliday said he had to agree something needed to be in place for the county’s future. “We need a plan, we need to facilitate business,” he said.

Carbo asked Holliday if he could clarify what he thought he was saying. “I would like to summarize what I think I heard you say,” said Carbo. “You want to stop people from doing extremely stupid things by putting up a plan,” he asked. Holliday conceded, that he had said that.

Carbo told Holliday that the board needed to “recognize you need to set up a framework and how to manage that issue in the future. It is a fine line,” he said,

After a couple of the board members, Sandy Kane Smith, District 5, and Holliday said they didn’t like the “Smart Growth” title of the plan, Lagasse spoke up again, telling board members that what the plan was called, whether a smart growth plan or a comprehensive plan, was not the important issue. “Call it smart growth or a comprehensive plan, what is important is what a comprehensive plan should define,” said Lagasse. “None of you want to suppress growth, and we’re not trying to hinder growth, but (growth) needs to be done in a way the taxpayers don’t foot the bill.

“The burden needs to be put on the developer whether they are from Pearl River County, Louisiana, or even Texas. You have to keep the developer in line while taking the citizens into consideration,” he said.

County administrator Adrian Lumpkin said that the Round Rock subdivision was a good example of taxpayers being burdened by the lack of a plan. “There are 300 to 400 houses in there on a road 12 foot wide,” he said. “That developer made a lot of money off that land. My taxes and everybody else’s will go toward re-doing that road.”

Dale Wilson, a resident who had passed by, saw the meeting in progress and stopped to listen, offered the board his opinion on the proposal and the discussion. He said that the Pearl River was a “commuter county” and that he wanted it to become a county where his son could grow up in, live, and find work besides at big box stores and fast food restaurants, but that the discussion he had been listening to was drifting away from the real issue at hand.

“I have been listening to everyone for an hour and half,” said Wilson. “You all have spent a lot of time talking about subdivisions and roads. The way I see it is if CDM can’t deliver on the first thing on that list, economic development, the rest won’t follow. There will be no subdivisions if there is no economic growth.”

Lumpkin agreed, saying that following Hurricane Katrina the county had the opportunity to benefit from the many businesses that had been in New Orleans and needed to relocate so they could re-open as soon as possible. Because the county had nothing to offer, he said, such as an industrial park, the county had essentially “dropped the ball.”

“Following the storm, I personally went with several businesses to different locations,” he said. “They love our location, love the land, but there was nothing they could start building on today.”

Hales agreed. “Let’s take advantage of the fact that we are close to the Gulf Coast, to the Superdome. Let’s be Pearl River County — a point of destination, not something to pass through.”

Agreeing that the meeting needed to be wrapped up, Carbo asked board members to review the plan again. “It is my job to make sure we are all on the same page,” said Carbo, asking board members to look through the plan and mark in red any issues they had with it.

When Hales asked if everyone still had their copy of the preliminary plan, Holliday, replied that he had thrown “that crap away.” He did not reply when asked if he wanted another copy.

Board members agreed to have their opinions on the plan back to CDM within two weeks. The comprehensive plan, which will go through a public meeting process, is slated to be completed by July 2009.