Palms Sprung

Bay St. Louis Mayor Les Fillingame says the city will be uprooting and moving a stand of tall palm trees that were recently planted during a city streetscape project, and were apparently placed at least partially on private property owned by architects who have a contract to manage the project.

Eyebrows went up and the public began asking questions last week, when a crew of workers hastily planted nine tall palm trees on a triangle of land at the intersection of Dunbar Avenue, Main Street and St. Francis Street. The property is owned by architects Allison and John Anderson, who plan to build their offices and an apartment on the small plot of land.

Their company, Unabridged Architecture, also holds city contracts funded at least in part by millions from federal Community Development Block Grants, intended to help Bay St. Louis recover from Hurricane Katrina.

Letrice Earline Kesler, 82, of Diamondhead, MS passed away in Pass Christian, MS on Monday, April 5, 2010. Edmond Fahey Funeral Home was in charge.

The Andersons’ city work includes designing the $2.9 million downtown streetscape project, which envelops the Main and Dunbar area. Allison Anderson is also listed on documents as the project manager, and the palm trees in question were purchased as part of the streetscape.

A spokesperson at Unabridged Architecture said Tuesday that the Andersons were out of town on vacation this week and could not be reached for comment.
                                                                                                                                                
Public curiosity over the streetscape project blossomed recently,when crews began planting 19 palm trees that stand around 20 feet high and only feet apart on the east side of Dunbar Avenue, between DeMontluzin Street and Carroll Avenue. The trees were planted in front of private homes, but placed on the city right-of-way.

Then last Wednesday morning, workers planted nine more trees at the Anderson triangle.

Citizens began complaining that those trees were placed on the Andersons’ land, instead of in the right-of-way.

After the planting, at least one of the nine trees was measured as standing more than 16 feet in from the street, on the triangle.

After an inquiry from Councilman Joey Boudin at Monday’s City Council workshop, Fillingame said the palms were mistakenly placed on the Andersons’ property, and would be moved back out toward St. Francis Street to the city’s right-of-way.

“It’s just a mistake by the contractor,” the mayor said. “They’re going to move them to where they should be.”

Benchmark Construction is primary contractor on the streetscape undertaking. City officials said that company had hired a subcontractor to plant the palms, but that company’s name was not immediately available.

Boudin also asked if the administration could more equitably distribute the palm trees among the six Bay St. Louis wards, instead of clumping them so close together on Dunbar. “Ultimately, we will,” Fillingame said.

The Andersons recently fell into another controversy when it was disclosed that the city was planning to convert a short stretch of Dunbar Avenue into a one-way street, and build seven new parking spaces immediately adjacent to their commercial property on the triangle. That plan was quickly snuffed by the City Council.

In that case, both Allison Anderson and Fillingame said Unabridged Architecture was not involved in the decision to build the parking spaces.

So it was that the palm trees alarmed an already-wary public.

“If those city-paid trees are on her personal property, I’ve got a real problem with that,” said Bay St. Louis businessman Jeff Harding, who lives on Main Street . “I can’t understand. Everybody else gets oaks and crepe myrtles, and all of a sudden, Dunbar gets all these palm trees.”

“I just can’t figure out what’s going on here, and I don’t think anybody else can, either,” said J.E. Loiacano, whose family has property holdings in the Main and Dunbar area. “The big thing is the wasteful spending of the grant money. It’s costing the taxpayers money.”

Fillingame said Tuesday that the city streetscape project could change, and trees involved may well be relocated in the future.

“It’s a very fluid process right now,” he said. “There are going to be a lot of plants that are being placed that will be moved elsewhere.”

Boudin said more oversight is needed from the city on the streetscape work. “Who’s supposed to be watching these guys?” he said.

He added that he intended to bring the issue back before the City Council, and make sure no more possible conflicts arise from Allison Anderson’s property holdings or city contracts.

“I’m going to ask that we don’t spend any money on her property,” Boudin said. “I don’t like it. She has made enough money off the city that she can pay for her own parking and her own palm trees.”

City official Buzz Olsen, who has been coordinating city recovery and renewal projects, said the parties responsible for improperly planting the palm trees will be required to move them at their own expense.

“They’re going to be directed by the engineers to place them in the proper place,” he said.

“In all my life, I’ve never seen a piece of property in this town get all this attention,” Loiacano said.

BY J.R. Welsh

The Sea Coast Echo

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