Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Slidell council overrides veto, allows trailer replacements

A second attempt by Mayor Ben Morris to prevent a handful of Slidell residents from replacing mobile homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina failed Tuesday when the City Council pulled together just enough votes to override his veto.

The council voted 6-3, exactly the two-thirds vote needed to override the mayor's veto, enacting an ordinance to allow about five residents who live in District A, which includes the area in and around Olde Towne, to replace their storm-damaged mobile homes. The owners have either left Slidell or have been living in FEMA trailers since shortly after the storm more than 2 1/2 years ago.

Council members Warren Crockett, Kim Harbison and Bill Borchert sided with the mayor.

The city's zoning code prohibits new mobile or manufactured homes in Slidell, but the council allowed such homes already in District A to remain when it adopted the code. The code prohibits new mobile homes even if the old ones are destroyed by an act of God.

An initial attempt to pass the ordinance in April 2006 was unsuccessful.

The council reconsidered the ordinance in September and passed the measure, only to see Morris veto it the next month. The council's attempt to override the veto fell one vote short.

In the interim, two new members were elected to the council, so Councilman Lionel Hicks reintroduced the measure Feb. 12, hoping it would pass again with enough votes to override a potential second veto. Hicks, who represents District A, has been leading the charge to allow the residents to replace their mobile homes.

The measure passed that night by a 6-3 vote, and Morris again vetoed it, leading to Tuesday's override.

'A long, hard fight'

Hicks said he hoped Tuesday's vote would be the final hurdle for the residents trying to rebuild.

Hicks said after the vote that he is glad the council can move past the issue and concentrate on the other problems facing District A.

"It's been a long, hard fight, and I want to thank my colleagues on the council who stuck by me," he said. "And shame on those who didn't."

Only one resident spoke against the council's override attempt. Pat Hamrick said she didn't think it wise to pass an ordinance that would encourage people to place new trailers in a flood zone.

"Placing trailers in that area will in all probability have us facing this problem again in a few years," she said.

Crockett said he couldn't vote for the override because he never could determine exactly who needed new trailers, and he didn't see many people come before the council to defend such an exception to the zoning code.

Borchert said he has met with a local faith-based group that has agreed to build new homes for some residents, including those in District A. As such, he said he couldn't support allowing new trailers in the area.

Prior to the vote, Hicks pleaded with his fellow council members to let the residents replace their mobile homes.

"These people need to get back to some degree of normalcy. Everybody does," he said. "I just believe, and I ask this council to consider, to please vote to override this veto."

Measure deemed racist

Morris, who has been outspoken on the trailer issue, did not comment Tuesday with regard to the override attempt. However, he outlined his reasons for the veto last month in a letter to the council.

He called the ordinance racist, reiterated his concerns that mobile homes aren't safe during severe storms and noted that residents have refused to accept his help in finding more secure homes.

Morris said the ordinance is racist because its "negative implications affect a predominantly African-American neighborhood and nowhere else in our city."

Hicks, the council's sole black member, said Morris didn't have a good reason for vetoing the measure and that the mayor has no idea what it's like to be poor. He also took issue with the mayor's description of the ordinance as racist, saying it looked to him as if Morris was the one being racist.

Some of the people affected by the mobile home ban are senior citizens on fixed incomes who cannot afford regular houses, Hicks has said. He also noted that some would not qualify at their ages for 30-year mortgages.

Though the council's action will allow a few residents in District A to place new mobile homes on their properties, the trailers still would be prohibited for other residents in District A and elsewhere in the city. Any resident who wants to replace a mobile home must request a permit from the city, which will attempt to verify that a trailer existed on the property before the storm.

The replacement mobile homes must be occupied by the owner. Rental properties would be prohibited, and the new mobile homes will be limited to single-family use. Residents also would have to adhere to rules regarding lot size, off-street parking and skirting around the base of the homes, in addition to other city regulations.