By Adam Armour/The Itawamba County Times
The Mantachie Zoning Board has voiced its official recommendation against a controversial proposal to rezone a small piece of residential property for commercial use.
During a special public meeting held last week to discuss the issue, the members of the zoning board, which consists entirely of members of the town’s board of aldermen, unanimously agreed that a five-acre lot on Highway 371 West currently zoned R-1 should remain that way. In May, the property’s owner — town alderman Mike Horton — submitted a written request to have the lot rezoned as C-3.
Although Horton was in attendance at the meeting and sits on the town’s zoning board, he was not able to participate in any official discussions among zoning board members regarding his property, nor vote on the matter in his role as alderman.
Despite the zoning board’s verbal disapproval, the issue isn’t completely resolved. Although the city’s zoning board and board of aldermen share their members, the boards are not the same entity legally. That means, just because the zoning board “recommends” against a rezone, the board of aldermen still has to cast an official vote on the issue.
The board of aldermen neglected to vote on the issue during the meeting, meaning it will have to be officially decided at the next meeting, scheduled for August 7.
As was the case with the first public meeting, the town hall was packed with Mantachie residents eager to express their opinions on the matter. Although opinions seemed to be divided on the matter, a majority of those who spoke were opposed to the change.
The hearing opened with a request for Mayor Jeff Butler to read the names of those who officially protested the zoning change. Only people or entities with properties within 300 feet of the lot in question could officially protest the zoning change. There are eight such property owners altogether, five of whom filed official protests. With more than 20 percent of those directly affected protesting, the proposed change will have to receive a 2/3 majority vote from the board of aldermen in order to pass.
Most of the controversy about the change seemed to stem from the type of business Horton plans on opening if the rezoning goes forward: a small gas station/tobacco store. Several people said the increased traffic flow would be problematic; that the business wouldn’t generate any additional revenue for the town, only cannibalize from the businesses already established; and that it would drive property values down.
Even some of those people who supported Horton’s right to open whatever business he wanted said he should do it elsewhere.
“I would love to have whatever type of business [Horton] wants, just not there,” said Geneva Malone. “I truly believe this was a residential area in the first place, and it needs to stay that way.”
“I just don’t see the good wisdom [in it],” said Ward Barnes, who asked the board to consider the consequences of change before voting on the issue. “I would beseech the board to use good wisdom … We all have to live in this small town … Do some good, solid thinking about this, because you’re breaking new ground.”
But other residents spoke out in favor of the new business.
“There’s traffic on 371 at all hours of the night as it is,” said one Mantachie resident, who asked not to be identified in The Times. “I just don’t see how that’s going to bother me or any of my neighbors.”
During the previous public meeting, former Mantachie building inspector Joe Barnes stood as the most vocal opponent of the change, asserting that Horton failed to follow the town’s long-established guidelines for rezoning a property, including submitting a detailed site plan to town hall and posting a sign on the property itself announcing the proposed change 14 days before the public hearing takes place.
Although Barnes was present during last week’s meeting, he declined to speak to the zoning board directly. Still, Horton addressed the crowd about the accusations of failing to follow the town’s rules.
“This book is tough,” Horton said of the town’s ordinance laws. “If you want to enforce that book, you can’t just enforce two or three pages; you have to enforce them all. Just be aware of that.”
Horton said he bought the property with plans to build a business on it. The long-established assumption, he said, was that the property was zoned commercial already.
“I bought the property because everybody thought it was commercial,” Horton said. “I’m not trying to bother anybody.”
The alderman said if he couldn’t have the property rezoned, he would develop housing on the space.
In the end, the detractors seemingly won the day. Mayor Butler, who during the previous meeting openly supported the building of a new business, suggested the board vote as the majority of the town’s residents dictated.
“Personally, I like to vote according to the will of the people,” the mayor said.
Either way, in early August, the matter will be decided.