Leyens defends his skirting board for work on downtown building he owns|[09/12/07]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Mayor Laurence Leyens said he did nothing wrong by seeking approval outside public sessions from the Board of Architectural Review for an awning he added to a downtown building he owns.

Leyens approached the board before its regular meeting was called to order Tuesday, and before TV 23 cameras were recording, to talk about the metal awning added several weeks ago to the front of his building at 1619 Walnut St., in the Downtown Historic District.

The Board of Architectural Review, with members appointed by the mayor and aldermen, reviews applications for exterior alterations made to buildings in the city’s historic districts. It has advisory powers only.

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Improvements to the mayor’s building were discussed “informally” with the board after its Aug. 28 meeting adjourned, said Leyens, who said he obtained a permit and paid a fee before the work was done.

“I’m not avoiding the process,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “The purpose of that board is to ensure that development is being held to standards. Maybe I was a little too casual.” Tuesday, Leyens asked members not to call their meeting to order until after he had discussed with them changes to his building.

The mayor said he conducted business before and after the board went into session to limit public attention to what he said was his own private business.

“I asked them to turn the cameras off, one because of how I’m dressed, and two because whatever I do in my business, I get beat up politically,” he said.

Leyens showed the board pictures Tuesday of the awning that was added to the front of his building after Aug. 28.

“He was asking our opinion about the changes,” board member Troy Weeks said. “It would not be accurate to say we voted on anything.”

TV 23, the government access channel that shows public meetings in Vicksburg on cable TV, remained offline until the meeting was called to order.

“There is a standing policy that people do not have to be on TV,” Leyens said. “But if there’s a formal session and I say I do not want to be on TV, that would be a story.”

He said he was trying to avoid the connotation of politics or favoritism. “I’m kind of tired of the public knowing all my personal business,” he said. He intends to use the building across from Central Fire Station as a private workshop, he added.

“We made no decision,” said board member Dorwin Shields.

“I took a risk and went ahead and built it,” Leyens said.

Leyens added that he didn’t need formal approval from the board, having attained approval through the board’s liaison to the city, Paula Wright of the Community Planning Department.

“I didn’t have to be there,” he said. “I submitted my $11 application and Paula Wright approved it administratively.

“I went to go see them today because I think the process is important,” Leyens said. “That board has no authority. I could dismiss that board tomorrow and it’s gone.”

The board reviews applications for Certificates of Appropriateness for “all exterior features of new construction” to buildings in historic districts and landmark sites “when subject to public view,” under Article 813 of Vicksburg’s zoning ordinance.

Wright does routinely approve some applications for change without board review, Weeks said, but added that it would be unusual for her to sign off on an exterior improvement like an awning. “That would be way too involved,” he said.

Wright generally approves routine repair or maintenance projects and painting. Wright said today that she did not give Leyens a Certificate of Appropriateness for improvements to 1619 Walnut St.

“It would have needed to go to the Board of Architectural Review,” she said. “That is not something I would approve in-house.”

Weeks said he could not remember the board ever giving retroactive approval to a project. If an alteration does not meet standards, an owner can be ordered to remove it.

None of the board members voiced an objection to the improvement Tuesday. Weeks gave aesthetic advice on the awning’s valance.

Shields called the meeting to order after Leyens left, with the board considering one application regarding a lighted sign for AmSouth Bank.

The meeting adjourned at 4:23 p.m., but board members continued to discuss the mayor’s project. Several were confused as to whether they had officially decided anything regarding the improvement.

“He came in and showed us what he did. It’s done,” said Shields. “How can we vote on it?”