Jackson – On the surface, it sounds like a simple request: amend an ordinance to allow a reputable bed-and-breakfast establishment to operate an upscale, full-service restaurant.
But the petition, made to the Jackson City Council by the owners of the historic Fairview Inn in the Capital City`s Belhaven neighborhood, underscores the challenges facing urban communities.
On the one hand, neighborhood leaders and the Greater Belhaven Neighborhood Foundation (GBNF), are actively working to encourage economic development and commercial revitalization in the area.
On the other hand, recruiting this type of growth while maintaining the historic neighborhood`s residential integrity and appeal is a delicate and difficult balancing act.
In the case of the Fairview Inn, whose request was approved by the City Council in early April on a 5-0 vote (with two members absent), the effort to amend the ordinance set off a firestorm of opinion among neighborhood residents and city leaders, igniting a year-long battle that has pitted neighbor against neighbor, elected official against constituent and legal definition against popular public opinion.
“We were very surprised, we thought it was a very minor change and didn`t expect or understand the logic of opposing something so minor,” said Bill Simmons, who along with his wife, Carol, has operated the 96-year-old Colonial Revival mansion as a bed-and-breakfast inn since 1993.
However, many did not see the change as minor. While it appears that
the majority of Belhaven residents support the idea of having a fine-dining establishment in the interior of their neighborhood, the opinion of the property owners most directly affected by the proposal is clearly divided.
“Thirty-one percent of the neighbors within 160 feet of the Fairview Inn object, and 61% of residents in single-family dwellings in that area object,” said Kathy Baker, who lives across the street from the Fairview with her husband, Dan, and four young children. “This is no small objection.”
According to the Belhaven Improvement Association (BIA), 40 property owners are located within 160 feet of the Fairview Inn – the legal distance within which property owners must be notified of any proposed change in a zoning ordinance. The BIA reports that of these owners, eight are rental, commercial or vacant property owners and all eight absentee owners support the restaurant proposal. Of the owner-occupied, single-family dwellings, 15 are opposed to the restaurant, while 16 support it. One owner, a deputy city attorney, abstained from an opinion, stating a conflict of interest.
As the representative association for the neighborhood, the BIA has a voice in the matter and an ear among the city`s planning department and the City Council, but even the association was divided on whether to support the request.
“It has been a difficult issue because, traditionally, the BIA has held the position that there should be no commercialization within the interior of the neighborhood,” said Stratton Bull, president of the neighborhood association, which was established in 1965. “This issue has been very time consuming and a challenge. Every board member has spent a lot of time if not working on it, then thinking about it, wrestling with the issues, listening to concerns and developing their own opinions, culminating in the resulting votes. We voted on this several times.”
Initially, the BIA decided not to support the request for a zoning ordinance amendment for the Fairview property. Concerns were raised regarding the proposal`s impact on zoning and a neighborhood-wide meeting was held the following month. At the meeting, residents spoke both for and against the proposal, and two sets of issues emerged: some were zoning-related and others were neighbor-related. A written statement enumerating the concerns that would need to be addressed in order for the BIA board to consider any action was presented to the Fairview`s owners. A BIA committee was formed to study the matter and make its recommendation to the board.
In the meantime, Fairview owners Bill and Carol Simmons decided against requesting a change in zoning. The Fairview is zoned as residential property and has had a special use permit since the early 1990s that allows the inn to operate in its current capacity. The owners decided to pursue a text amendment that would alter the existing language of the special use permit to allow for the operation of a restaurant. They again approached the BIA, seeking its endorsement.
“It was presented to us again in January,” said Bull. “It was reviewed and addressed and kicked around by the board, and the vote was that the BIA could support it with slight changes. The board wanted to ensure appropriate on-site and off-street parking and wanted a clear definition of the alcohol service, which would be allowed only in conjunction with the serving of a meal and at a table. We didn`t want it in any way to be a bar. The board`s support was conditioned that the text amendment be revised to reflect these two points.”
Consequently, the board voted 9-5-1 on that statement, with nine board members for the proposal, five against and one abstaining.
However, the switch from a zoning change request to a text amendment, and the changes proposed by the BIA did not affect the opinions of those residents opposed to the restaurant proposal.
“Children and high traffic-generating commercial activity do not mix,” Baker said. “Bringing a heavy commercial business across the street from my family and our neighbors will have a long-term deteriorating effect on our street. It will be a hazard, safety-wise. There will be alcohol served every day of the week, all night long, with people coming and going constantly.”
Baker and those opposed to the project also see the text amendment sought by the Fairview`s owners as a way around the stricter requirements and scrutiny that a zoning change request would bring. In addition, she believes the language in the amendment essentially grants the Fairview a C-3 rezoning, saying the text amendment language gives them permission to operate the type of business that falls under this zoning designation. She and other opponents say they were surprised by the council`s unanimous approval.
“There is a Mississippi law that basically states that the people living closest to a property seeking a change in use should have their votes count for more, but this seemed to be a popularity contest,” said Dan Baker. “People from all over the city came to the meeting and spoke about how great the Fairview is, how it looks like a palace. They didn`t talk about the residential character of the neighborhood. The City Council disregarded us in light of popular opinion.”
Nearly 80 people showed up for the four-hour meeting, most of whom did support the Simmons’ request to open six nights a week, with the added possibility of serving Sunday brunch. Ward 7 Councilwoman Margaret Barrett-Simon, who lives in the Belhaven neighborhood, requested the ordinance revision, saying that Belhaven needs to encourage mixed uses in the neighborhood to survive.
In accordance with the council`s vote, the Fairview`s owners can open a restaurant 30 days from the date of approval, once city staff reviews plans for parking and deliveries on the residential street. But the fight to keep commercial property from encroaching on the neighborhood may not be over.
“The next step would be to appeal to the Hinds County Circuit Court,” said Kathy Baker. “Whether we commence a separate lawsuit would have to be looked at, but we see no reason not to appeal.”
The Fairview Inn is the only bed and breakfast affected. Any new bed and breakfast establishments will be required to obtain a use permit from the city that requires notification of neighbors.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Mara Hartmann at email@example.com.