Biloxi Planners Look For Some Height Help

The Biloxi Planning Commission is tired of approving condo projects and then seeing their hard work overturned at city hall. After a meeting Thursday, commissioners sent a letter to the city council asking for guidance about the city's height ordinance, before the controversy over building heights gets too far out of hand.

Biloxi's current height ordinance allows buildings outside Keesler's flight path to be 175 feet tall. That ordinance was adopted before Hurricane Katrina wiped away properties along the Biloxi shoreline. And before insurance costs skyrocketed.

The Biloxi Planning Commission uses the 175 feet as a guide when it considers development proposals. David Washer chairs the 15 member commission.

"We look at any kind of variances or zoning changes and all that's requested by the citizens," he said.

Variance requests have been a regular part of recent planning commission meetings. Developers like Mike Boudreaux keep presenting proposals that top the city's height ordinance, because they remain sold on Biloxi.

"It's a very good market," Boudreaux said.

However, if height continues to be a problem, Boudreaux isn't sure how much longer Biloxi's window of opportunity will remain open.

"The pulse of the investors is being disturbed right now," he said. "They're very much wary of the idea of being able to come in and build something that is viable and profitable."

In the Pelican Plantation presentation, Boudreax said what many other developers have said since Katrina. They need to build beyond Biloxi's height limit to maximize profits.

And quite often, planning commissioners like Jimmy Poulos approve height variance requests.

"We look at each individual case," Poulos explained.

In the case of the Tower at Edgewater, Poulos said nobody spoke out against the 33 story proposal. And no homes were in the west Biloxi area where the condo was to be built. When the Biloxi City Council debated the tower, it took four stories off of it. And then earlier this week, the mayor vetoed the smaller tower.

"That's a little frustrating to us, when we feel like we made the right decision," Poulos said.

The veto created some uncertainty at the planning commission about what should and should not be okayed by that committee. According to commissioner Gary Lechner, "We need to decide as an agency, a planning commission, what do we want to make the height."

Chairman Washer agreed, "Hopefully we can strike a happy medium with all the citizens that everybody can live with," Washer said.

Several planning commissioners think the best way to do that would be to hold public hearings again, so the city can make its land development ordinance work in this post Katrina world.

Biloxi City Council members have also talked about redoing their development rules. But so far, no hearings have been scheduled.