Port panel opts to skirt house’s being named Mississippi Landmark|[7/20/06]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 20, 2006

Members of the Port Commission mulled options on the swift move by state historic preservation officials to declare the Ceres Plantation House a Mississippi Landmark – one of them being to use an option to sell it to its current lessee.

Meeting as a full board Wednesday after not having a quorum Monday, commissioners looked at the letter its attorney, Mack Varner, sent to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History protesting the decision to consider it for a designation that would make it impossible for the commission to market prime industrial real estate for potential development.

&#8220I look at it as taking the property from us,” commissioner Rusty Hawkins said.

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After voting to adjourn the meeting, the full board continued to openly consult with Varner on the issue. Ideas included soliciting letters to MDAH from the Mississippi Department of Transportation exercising a clause in its current lease with plant nursery operator Bob Fant.

Chairman Johnny Moss said the clause would allow the county, acting through the commission, to sell Ceres House to Fant and then buy it back, thus avoiding the designation.

MDOT had planned a major overhaul of the Interstate 20 interchange at Flowers, a portion of which abuts the property where the house sits. MDOT officials have said plans to purchase right-of-way to proceed with it are still years away, with the actual work even further away.

Warren County supervisors, who appoint two of the five members of the commission, would be made aware of the issue before any other letters or calls were made, Moss said.

In the letter to the Port Commission, officials with MDAH’s review and compliance office said it is considering the designation because of the house’s architectural style and for its surviving as an antebellum plantation house in Warren County.

A designation of public property as a Mississippi Landmark can be done without consent of the owners and act as a permanent historic easement.

The same process is under way with the Old Justice Court, with MDAH’s permitting committee still mulling that building’s eligibility for the same designation.

Located in the southwest corner of the 1,290-acre Ceres Research & Industrial Interplex, the home was purchased by Warren County acting through the Port Commission in 1986 from its original owner, U.G. Flowers. For about the last decade, it has been leased to Fant at a rate of $900 per month to operate a plant nursery on the site.

The lease expires in July 2007, and the commission has the right to renew the lease early, something the commission had decided to explore just days before being notified by MDAH of its intentions.

The commission adjourned until Aug. 21 at 3:15 p.m.