HOUSE OKS BIILL TO END RESTRICTIONS ON PROPERTY OWNERS NEAR THE TRACE
By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Occasionally drastic changes are made to bills in the state Legislature as they wind their way through the process to become law.
Such was the case Thursday afternoon in the state House of Representatives with a bill concerning the Natchez Trace Parkway. The bill originally was designed to allow church buildings to be taller than the 35-foot or three-story restrictions on property adjacent to the Natchez Trace so that Harrisburg Baptist Church in Tupelo could build alongside the federal parkway. But an amendment changed everything.
That amendment eliminated all restrictions on people who own property adjacent to the Natchez Trace, a 415-mile federal parkway with administrative offices in Tupelo. Under current state law, structures of more than 35 feet or three stories cannot be constructed within 1,000 feet of the outside boundaries of the Trace.
The amendment, offered by Billy Bowles, D-Houston, eliminated those restrictions. Bowles’ amendment passed on a resounding voice vote. Then the amended bill pass 110-7.
Bowles said he offered the amendment as a property rights issue.
“I think if it is your property you should be able do what you want with it,” he said. “If the government does not want you to, they can purchase the property.”
Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, who introduced the original bill, said the House would come back today and take out Bowles’ amendment. He expressed confidence that the amendment would be removed.
Holland said the exemption is being requested because Harrisburg Baptist Church plans to move its location to Cliff Gookin Boulevard across from Tupelo High School, alongside the Natchez Trace. The church’s plans call for a 45-foot steeple.
Under the Bowles-amended bill, Harrisburg could build its steeple and other landowners also could do as they pleased.
While Bowles said it is a property rights issue, during discussion of the amendment on the House floor, there also was talk of other issues.
During the debate, Bowles told of a ranger who pulled him over for reading a bill as he drove the Trace.
“Very few legislators who drive the Trace haven’t had an encounter of one sort of another with the rangers,” Holland said. “I think the amendment was sort of retaliation, sending a message.”
Dan Brown, superintendent of the Natchez Trace, refused to comment on the encounters between rangers and legislators. But he said he hopes the House reconsiders and maintains the scenic beauty of the Trace.
He praised Mississippi for passing the original bill in 1988 establishing the height restrictions along the federal parkway.
“I certainly hope the state Legislature continues its long-standing support of the parkway,” Brown said. “It is a valuable recreational resource for the state.”
Trace officials estimate 12 million people visit the Natchez Trace each year. When completed it will be 445 miles long and stretch from Natchez to Nashville. The Mississippi stretch of the roadway is 309 miles.
Brown said the 1,000 foot limit on 35-foot structures was put in place because buildings higher than that would not be concealed by the tree line. The Natchez Trace on average owns about 400 feet of property on either side of the center line of the roadway, Brown said.
The Trace is the second largest rural parkway in the United States and has visitors from throughout the world.
All Northeast Mississippi legislators voted for the bill except Jack Gadd of Hickory Flat and Joe Mitch McElwain of Ripley, who did not vote.