Hancock County

The historic look of downtown Bay St. Louis is at stake after controversial firing

Visitors jam in Old Town in the Bay St. Louis Historic District for a Second Saturday event. A proposed 2 percent tax at restaurants and bars in the city could be used to add more events and improve parks, although 60 percent of voters in a special election would have to approve the tax.
Visitors jam in Old Town in the Bay St. Louis Historic District for a Second Saturday event. A proposed 2 percent tax at restaurants and bars in the city could be used to add more events and improve parks, although 60 percent of voters in a special election would have to approve the tax. Sun Herald file

The hometown folks and tourists who love to stroll the quaint Bay St. Louis Historic District have the Historic Preservation Commission at least partly to thank.

"A historic district protects and increases property values, working much the way that covenants do in high-quality housing developments," the Commission points out on its website. "It insures that anyone who moves into your neighborhood helps maintain the charm of the district — benefiting both the neighborhood and the entire community."

But it appears the Commission is under attack.

The assault on the Commission, which was created in 2007 to protect the cottages, theaters and the rest of the Bay's oldest architecture from the rush to rebuild after Katrina, began last week when Ellis Anderson was bumped off the Commission.

Anderson, who lives in one of those historic buildings, the circa-1911 Webb School, said she had no idea she was about to be ousted until the Bay St. Louis City Council emerged from a long executive session at the end of a marathon city council meeting. Her name wasn't on the agenda and neither was the dissolution of the Commission. There was an appointment to fill a vacancy on the Commission, an appointment that wasn't acted on.

Best Anderson can tell, the Commission's main transgression seemed to be an attempt to save a cottage. It voted unanimously to post a photo on Facebook with a plea for someone to step up and move it off the owner's lot. She said city officials alluded to possible legal action as its reason for removing her.

'Talking about dissolving it'

Councilman Jeffery Reed, one of two dissenting votes (Doug Seal was the other), said some on the council wanted to go even further.

"They were talking about dissolving it," said Reed, the only councilman to offer insight about what when on in the executive session. "I wasn't for dissolving and I wasn't for pulling Ellis Anderson off the Commission."

He said he couldn't say why the other councilmen wanted it dissolved or wanted Anderson off.

Larry Smith, the Ward 4 Councilman who made the motion to remove Anderson, said "it was in the interests of the citizens of Bay St. Louis. That's really all I need to say."

He said he couldn't go further because "that brings up all kinds of legal problems."

Anderson said Mayor Mike Favre and Ward 6 Councilman Josh Desalvo after the meeting mentioned a possible lawsuit brought on by something she had done on behalf of the HPC but didn't go into details.

Anderson, who lives in a 105-year-old school building that doubles as a vacation rental and artists retreat in the Historic District, said no one had raised any concerns about the HPC or her before the meeting and she wasn't asked to speak to the Council before she was fired. Last week, a few days after she was taken off the Commission, she was livid. But she has calmed some since then.

"Personally, I've decided to focus my energy on preserving the (Historic) District, which was all I wanted to do when I was on the board," she said. "The way I figured how to do that was the set up a new Facebook page, and I'm going to launch a new webpage."

The upside for Anderson

She said the Facebook page attracted 235 followers in its first 48 hours.

"My getting fired this way has made people understand it's really at risk," said Anderson, who publishes the Shoofly Magazine, a website with Bay St. Louis news . "They like the district. They like being connected and they don't want to see it go away.

"The outpouring of support has been amazing."

The Commission was created in 2007 by the Council with a vote of support by property owners in the district, which runs about two blocks deep along the beach from U.S. 90 almost to the Waveland city limit. It does not, members point out, cost Bay St. Louis a dime.

The state, as well as the Commission, take seriously matters that involve the oldest buildings in the town of more than 11,000. It's a picturesque town that crowds of out-of-towners visit to park their cars and walk among shops and restaurants. Property prices have steadily tracked upward since before Katrina but have taken off in recent years. Now, expect to pay $200 a square foot or more. The median price in Mississippi is $92 a square foot.

And that attracts the interest of developers who see those crowds and the skyrocketing real estate prices and want to cash in.

Two of the most active are New Orleans developers James and Catherine MacPhaille of New Orleans, who have bought 25 properties over the last five years, most recently a motel and waterpark that has languished in Waveland for years.

But they also own property in the Historic District, including a P.J. Coffee shop and adjacent ice cream parlor under development that was halted by the city because of a problem with a state Department of Archives and History standards for the property.

At least a dozen people contacted Jim Woodrick, MDAH Historic Preservation Division director, and he said more contacted other MDAH personnel about the project.

In the end, it was an easement on the property that required MDAH approval prior to construction, not the callers from Bay St. Louis, that delayed the project, Woodrick said.

Projects rarely rejected

Teri Velardi, an appraiser who also runs a property manager's office for a homeowners association in Pass Christian, was there at the inception of the Commission and remembers the hard work and overwhelming community support that led to its formation.

She said halting a project has been extremely rare, and it has been dedicated to helping projects along in a way that maintains the character of the town.

"There's no question it's a value asset," she said. "For them to want to dismantle it is sad. What they did with Ellis is insane."

The Serve Bay St. Louis website published answers to questions given to the councilmen as candidates. None suggested there was a need to do away with the Commission. Smith, the councilmen who made the motion to remove Anderson said:

"I would take the recommendations of the commissions under advisement and if there is a difference of opinion, allow them the courtesy of a visit with the reasoning of the council," he wrote.

Velardi said that's not what she saw when she attended the Council meeting where Anderson was voted off.

"No honor. No respect," she said. "No one talked to her prior to to find out what was going on."