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By RUSSELL TURNER
Officials with the Town of Leakesville are reconsidering the implementation of two new ordinances and changes to two other ones after hearing outcry from residents at a public meeting on Tuesday.
Town officials had approved the ordinances on March 5 and published them in the Herald, as required by law, in the newspaper’s March 21 edition. Those ordinances and changes tackled issues ranging from the demolition or alteration of historic buildings to rules and regulations concerning residential driveways in the town.
After hearing from residents on Tuesday, officials now plan to make several changes to the ordinances, reprint them in the newspaper and revisit the issue in May in a rare evening meeting to allow more public comment. That meeting is set for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 7, at Town Hall.
Objections to the new rules began to draw criticism immediately after publication in the newspaper. For several days, residents took to social media to express their frustrations and the topic was fodder for discussions at restaurants, convenience and grocery stores, churches and just about anywhere else residents gathered.
Among the new rules was a requirement that all residential properties in the town have a ‘substantial’ driveway or parking area. The new ordinance would have required any new residential construction to have a driveway constructed of asphalt, concrete, brick, stone, or other like materials and would have given current property owners to come into compliance within six months. The ordinance also put restrictions on vehicles parked ‘haphazardly’ on public properties.
Other ordinances drawing the ire of many residents was new Town Ordinance 146 which would have addressed the issue of truck use and traffic in the Town of Leakesville and Town Ordinance 147 which would institute the Town of Leakesville Environmental Court to enforce ordinances concerning property usage in the county seat.
After publication of the ordinances, many residents took it upon themselves to encourage their neighbors to attend Tuesday’s meeting to oppose the new rules and a good number of residents took advantage as it was standing room only at town hall when the meeting convened at 2 p.m.
Mayor George Perkins told the visitors that town officials had a full meeting agenda to cover, but that town leaders wanted to give residents a chance to voice their concerns. Former alderwoman Nell Gray was the first to speak and used the opportunity to point out multiple issues she said were ongoing concerns town officials should address before putting new restrictions on residents. Gray said town streets were in bad shape and that drainage in the town was a huge problem that was not being addressed. She also pointed to property owned by non-residents she said was not being cared for.
“We have a lot of things on the agenda that need to be fixed, repaired or removed,” Gray said. “The city owns property that y’all do not upkeep. It is your property, your alleys, that you are not taking care of.”
Veronica McLemore, who lives on North Davis Street, pointed out some of the same issues, but also took issue with rules regarding large truck traffic and the newly organized environmental court. McLemore said she felt the new rules unfairly targeted residents such as her husband, who supports their family as a truck driver. She also took issue with who would have the authority to write citations for violations.
“I was reading that anyone who is a member of the city can walk up and give me a ticket,” McLemore said. “That is not acceptable. Just because you are an alderman, I am not just going to accept the ticket, you bring it to the town and send your policeman of something. I would like you to clarify those things, because the way you are currently saying it, I don’t think you’ve thought it through.”
Rebekah Stowers, who volunteers for the town as a member of the Main Street Leakesville Organization, told officials her family could not currently afford to build a driveway to satisfy the ordinance and that a six month grace period would not change that.
“I am okay with having spots (in my lawn) where my vehicles park and if I am okay with that you should be too,” Stowers said. “My house sits right in the middle of town and my grass is tall right now because my lawnmower is currently broke. But my grass is not any taller, and I am sorry if this offends anybody, than the grass that was in the park this weekend, that nobody cut, and we had an event there.”
Stowers added that she was not looking for a pat on the back, but that she had volunteered roughly 20 hours over the past week preparing for the event in the park on Saturday, but the town had failed to cut the grass for the event.
“Without a better way to say it, don’t come tell me to do something that you are not going to do,” Stowers added.
Van Helton, a lifelong resident now living on Third Street, told aldermen they did not pay his bills and didn’t need to try to tell him he can or can’t do on his property.
John Csaszar, who lives on Paulding Road, said his issue was that when he purchased his property, Leakesville was not a restricted neighborhood with a homeowner association with rules and regulations and he took issue with town leaders trying to force those types of regulations on him now.
Mary Breland, a public school educator living on Lackey Street, went even further, telling officials the ordinances should be rescinded completely.
“I am a citizen, a voter and a landowner,” Breland said. “Everything that was printed in the paper (the ordinances) needs to be dropped. “I don’t want any more discussion or compromise or backing off a little bit. I want the whole thing dropped.”
Numerous others spoke out as well and town attorney Roun McNeal took notes of the complaints. He asked the crowd and town officials for a few moments to step away from the meeting so he could give better answers. He returned later in the meeting and proposed numerous changes for the aldermen to consider.
The gist of McNeal’s recommendations was to change the ordinances to provide what he called “broad variance” to current residents, essentially creating “grandfather clauses” to much of what town officials had previously passed.
McNeal first recommended that language be changed in the truck ordinance to clarify that nothing in the ordinance would prevent delivery trucks and light trucks from operating on town streets.
In reference to rules restricting what roads larger trucks can use, such as locally-owned and operated log trucks or tractor trailer rigs, McNeal recommended allowing those residents to appeal directly to the town board to request a variance that would allow them to work with town officials to determine the best route.
Alderman Karen Smith, whose husband is a truck driver, said she believed truck drivers that lived in the community know best which routes to take and what turns they can make.
“As long as they aren’t trying to go down another road and are tearing up our stop signs or tearing up a water line or water hydrant, my opinion is they should be grandfathered-in,” Smith said.
McNeal added that he did not believe any members on the board wants to persecute people who work and live in the town.
“The main thing we are trying to do is prevent thru-trucks from getting on low-weight roads, ,” McNeal said. “We want to prevent people who don’t live in our town from using our low-weight streets and tearing them up without putting anything into our economy.”
McNeal also recommended changing the ordinance concerning environmental court to dictate that only police officers or the town’s building inspector could issue citations.
As for the driveway issue, McNeal suggested no changes to the language regarding new construction. However, he suggested aldermen change their ordinance so that property owners would not have to upgrade driveways on current or existing property unless there was a change in ownership or significant upgrades or expansion to the residences. Under those circumstances, property owners would have six months to make the upgrades to the driveways.
“The way I am trying to do it, is if you are a person on a fixed income and you’ve been living in your house for 34 years and don’t want to change nothing about your house and live there until God calls you home, we are not going to make you change anything,” McNeal said. “What we are saying is that unless you sell your house or make significant alterations to your house, you will be grandfathered-in.”
In the end, alderman voted to allow McNeal to make corrections for them to consider in the next few days and to republish the amended ordinances in a coming edition of the Herald for all residents to see and consider. Whether those changes will be acceptable to residents remains to be seen.