Council votes 3-2 to revoke Summertree demolition

At the City Council meeting Monday, Mayor Ronnie Williams Jr. continued his recognition of African American citizens during Black History Month. He recognized African Americans who have served on the City Council. From left are Betty Sawyer-Smith, first African American councilperson-at-large; Sylvia Morrow, first African American female councilperson; Valerie Washington and Sharon Flanagan, daughters of the late John Below who was the first African American councilman from District 4; John Winston, the first African American councilman from District 3; and Williams. Photo by Carolyn Roy

With a split vote of 3-2, the City Council decided to rescind two ordinances calling for the condemnation of the Hopeville Apartments on Second Street at the City Council meeting Monday. Before the vote, Mayor Ronnie Williams Jr. asked the council to vote to repeal the condemnation ordinances and doing so were Councilperson-at-Large Betty Sawyer-Smith and Councilpersons Rosemary Elie and Chris Petite. Voting against it were Councilpersons Eddie Harrington and Dale Nielsen. The discussion began with Williams referring to the apartments as a “sensitive” issue and said Harrington said many times he couldn’t vote to repeal the condemnation because owners, Sterling Bank, had been given many opportunities to improve the property but didn’t do so.

He said Harrington also objected on grounds that the council did not give local residents the same extended periods as the bank received. He said the principles of the U.S. Constitution implied sacredness of ownership and it should not be easy for the government to take property. “You are telling someone else what to do with their property,” Williams said. Williams said there were numerous structures in the city that had been vacant for years and no action was taken to condemn them. He also read from minutes of a council meeting in 2019 stating the property was dilapidated and dangerous. He asked Harrington why the then City Council, of which Harrington was a member, did not hold an emergency meeting to address the condemnation if it were so dilapidated and dangerous.

“Nobody did that,” Williams said. He said that argument did not hold up and he thought the project should go forward. The City Council adopted the condemnation ordinance in Dec. of 2019 and Sterling Bank filed suit that same month to stop the condemnation.

Williams was also critical of the former council not wanting an outside bank making decisions about the property saying several businesses, namely, McDonald’s, Sonic, Burger King, Hobby Lobby and Subway contributed to the local economy. He said it was “Economics 101” to have outside business in Natchitoches.

He was critical of Harrington and the former council for what he said was being against low-income housing. Harrington said he was not against usage of the property for low-income housing but was critical of the developers taking five years and making many promises but doing nothing to improve the property. He said the bank owned the property but did nothing to repair it and the City followed its guidelines when passing the condemnation ordinance. Harrington also told Williams that local property owners had only 30 days to prevent condemnation once it was adopted by the council and the numerous other vacant houses cited by Williams had not come before the council.

Harrington also answered Williams criticism of him being against an out-of-state bank and business. He said he knew that cities could not survive without outside businesses but the ones Williams named all followed the building rules and regulations. Harrington reiterated that the former council had numerous meetings with Sterling Bank representatives but the property was never repaired as agreed. He said if Sterling Bank had done as it said it would, there would be housing there today. Speaking against repealing the ordinance were Natalie Covher, Jeff Oglesby and George Darfus with emails read from Stephanie Masson and Tom Matuschka. Speaking for the project were John Winston, Carl Sias, Precious Barber, Sylvia Morrow and Darren Nixon. Cathy Seymour said she had no problem with the project but said the bank should not be given more time. She said the project should start tomorrow and get done quickly or be removed.

City Attorney Alex Washington said that the City had control of what would happen with the project in reference to it not moving forward as in the past. Attorney David Halpern represented Sterling Bank and agreed with Williams that the City should receive quarterly reports. He agreed to set up a schedule for progress reports with the first one due March 1. Williams provided an information sheet provided by Halpern:

•Upon the condemnation ordinance being repealed, the Sterling Bank will take 60-90 days to close on financing and mobilize construction. From that point, construction should be completed within a 12-moth period and available to lease to college students and local residents that qualify for housing.

•Maco Construction is the general contractor. Maco’s usual process is to subcontract major trades such as plumbing, electric and HVAC to qualified local subcontractors. This is the process that Maco intends to use to generate local jobs.

•Sterling Bank will require unconditional completion and repayment guaranties from its borrower and its principal, Steve Nail. Construction financing for the project has been approved by the bank. The approval included a review of Nail’s financials, tax returns, current real estate portfolio and contingent liabilities. Nail is a long-time customer of the bank and has completed and paid off loans on several projects financed by the bank.

•Existing balconies, stairs and handrails will be removed and replaced per the plans submitted with the building permit application Nov. 22, 2019.

•Apartments will be one bedroom. Current unit count will be reduced from 48 to 40 to allow for larger one bedroom units.

•Units will include security systems and local management.

•It will be sprinklered per fire code.

In other action, the council adopted the following ordinances:

•Annexation of 13 acres owned by Braxton Keyser LLC on La. Hwy. 494 for expansion of an existing business for medical purposes and medical offices

•Authorized extension in favor of Paul’s Party Boat on Cane River

•Resolution adopting LCDBG Citizen Participation Plan and procurement policy The council tabled ordinances committing to pay administrative fees for LCDBG HVAC Program and hire Frye Magee LLC as administrative consultant; and approving bond ordinance to incur $4 million utility revenue refunding bonds The next scheduled City Council meeting will be Monday, March 8.

In the Thursday, Feb. 26, 2021, print edition