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City error revealed by platting request

August 15, 2012

By STEVEN NALLEY
sdnedu@bellsouth.net

The Starkville Planning and Zoning commission recommended approval of a final plat for a new phase of Huntington Park, removing a condition concerning fire code compliance after deciding the issue was not relevant to the request.

Originally, city staff recommended 12 conditions for the plat’s approval, among them an additional fire hydrant to ensure previously platted lots were within range of a fire hydrant as specified by law. When the applicant, David Jackson, asked why the issue was not raised earlier, Starkville Fire Chief Rodger Mann said it was an error on the city fire department’s part. He said it was the first error of its kind he could remember since first becoming involved in fire inspection in 1994.

“I truly apologize that you’re having to hear this tonight,” Mann said. “Basically, it’s nothing more than a misunderstanding of code compliance. We pride ourselves on trying to work with developers as much as we possibly can. There will be a process that prohibits this from occurring from this point forward.”

Jackson went before the board to request approval of a final plat for four residential lots on the western side of a cul-de-sac in Huntington Park, where he had already platted four lots at the cul-de-sac’s end. Mann said city law requires neighborhoods to be platted and fire hydrants to be placed such that the back of each home is no farther than a 600-foot driving distance from a hydrant.

Jackson’s engineer, Mike Brent, said placing a new hydrant would be expensive — more than $10,000 — because it would require digging to install new water lines beneath the boulevard, working around existing utilities. Jackson said he didn’t feel it was fair for the city to ask him to rectify the issue when the fire department had already signed off on every planned phase of Huntington Park’s development in the early 2000s.

“We did everything (in accordance with) the city’s specifications,” Jackson said. “Now, after the fact, I’m being asked to do more utility work, which would be quite expensive.”

Mann said he had a less expensive alternative: moving an existing fire hydrant from one corner of a lot near the cul-de-sac to a closer corner of the same lot. However, Brent said the city should still move the hydrant itself instead of asking Jackson’s company to do it.

“If the city made the mistake, let the city move the hydrant,” Brent said.

Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Jerry Emison agreed.

“If the city takes an action, and the private sector treats it in good faith, and the city discovers a mistake (it made) and wants the private sector to rectify it, I have problems,” Emison said. “If the developer asks the city, ‘What should I do?’ and the city says, ‘Do this,’ ... and the developer does it, the city should have responsibilities.

Commissioner John Moore said he disagreed, because he believes the city and the developer should have both spotted the error, making both responsible for it. Commissioner Dora Herring said the city is at greater fault, because it is responsible for recommending final approval.

Notably, City Attorney Chris Latimer was absent from the meeting, along with commissioner Jason Walker, and no other attorney was present in Latimer’s stead. Moore said the commission needed Latimer’s expertise before acting.

“I believe we should table this until our attorney comes back,” Moore said.

Emison said another alternative would be to make a decision on Jackson’s plat and move it forward to the Starkville Board of Aldermen. Latimer would then be able to address the issue at the aldermen’s next meeting without necessarily having to factor in the commission’s opinion, he said.

“We’re a recommending body,” Emison said. “Whatever we tell the city to do, it’s a pure recommendation. Our opinions are non-binding.”

Before the commission could act on Emison’s suggestion, Commissioner James Hicks asked if the fire hydrant issue was specifically endemic to the plat up for approval that evening.

“Quite frankly, I’m a little confused as to why this is a planning and zoning issue,” Hicks said. “I don’t see how we are tasked with this responsibility or even recommending who should pay for (resolving the fire hydrant issue).”

After some discussion, several commissioners agreed with Hicks, and the commission decided to delete the approval condition pertaining to the fire hydrant entirely. Then, the commission voted to recommend the aldermen approve Jackson’s plat request and allow Jackson to resolve the fire hydrant issue with the city through other means.

Emison said, “I think everybody understands that problem’s got to be dealt with. This is not the venue to solve that error.”

The commission also recommended the aldermen approve Gregory Mostella and Michelle Mostella’s request to use property at 730 Whitfield Road as a place of worship for Tribe Judah Ministries. The commission placed an extra condition on this recommendation: The Mostellas would not receive the certificate of occupancy until the area behind the building is ready for parking.

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