New court could pave way for downtown beautification

By STAFF,

A new environmental court up in Madison could provide a template for other communities like Hattiesburg to address their longstanding blight problems – especially downtown.

The Clarion Ledger reported earlier this week that the court began operating in January and hears all code enforcement issues. 

It meets twice a month at the police department of the affluent Jackson suburb that has a long reputation for strictly enforcing zoning laws to maintain its appearance.

Property owners receive notice, and if they don’t comply to demands to clean up can face fines of up to $1,000 a day and three months in jail.

“Every city deals with lots that aren’t taken care of, or aren’t kept up and other property issues. We

don’t want to see that in our city,” longtime Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler was quoted as saying.

Hattiesburg, of course, has similar problems, not only in residential areas, but also in segments of each of its business district – including Midtown, The Avenues, and Downtown.

Mayor Toby Barker and members of the city council typically take up property issues each month and although it’s often a long list that includes updates on existing cases and reports of new problems, it’s not very often that commercial properties are targeted. 

Some might argue that the administration is trying to address some of those issues through more diplomatic, less public, avenues, but the general lack of progress leaves many – including us – wondering if that’s truly the case.

In order for the city council to officially address dilapidated or run-down properties, the City must first write a letter to the property owner, then wait for them to take action. If the owner doesn’t do anything, the council can vote to clean up the property itself and charge the costs plus fines to the owner.

Having a separate court with a judge able to directly levy fines might be more effective than the current system and it could free up some of the time of the mayor and councilmembers to address other needs.

Of course, most cities don’t have the money of Madison, the richest in the state with a per-capita income exceeding $100,000, but Hattiesburg is more fortunate than many and in order to tackle the issue, drastic measures may be needed.

And then there’s one of Hattiesburg’s biggest problems – particularly downtown – is that there are many out-of-town property owners, who don’t have much personal stake in what the city looks like – and, more often than not, are difficult to contact and work with.

Having a judge wouldn’t necessarily change that situation, but it might alleviate some of the political pressure the administration might face if it was to go after deserving commercial property owners.

But it’s worth watching how Madison’s court works. 

If it proves more successful at addressing blight, then other cities can – and should – look at giving it a shot.

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