The town of Natchez, Miss., is on shaky ground. Its historic district was built on a water-soluble bluff, and over the years, sinkholes have devoured entire streets.
For the last two years, the town has been debating a five-building condominium complex on the site of a 1946 pecan factory, which town officials tore down last year to clear for a private developer.
Last week, however, a state body put its foot down and denied developer Worley-Brown a construction permit. Citing safety reasons, on Sept. 6 the board of trustees of the state's department of archives and history voted unanimously against the permit.
"In the final analysis, I think it came down to the uncertainty of the site and whether the load of the new construction would endanger that landmark [Natchez Bluff] property," says former Mississippi Gov. William Winter, chairman of the board.
The land seemed so precarious that in 1995, a year after the National Trust named Natchez one of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, Sen. Trent Lott urged Congress to shore up the bluff to save not just people—two women died in the 1980 street collapse—but "to protect these historically significant properties and to prevent potential loss of lives," he said. "These bluffs overlook the Mississippi River and are formed by loess soil, a very fine powdery substance that practically liquefies when it gets wet."
Congress gave Natchez $30 million for an eight-inch-thick retaining wall of sorts, completed in 2000, that runs the length of Natchez's historic district. According to some residents, however, the bluff is holding up the wall, not the other way around.
"Our goal is to save our city's most precious natural asset from total destruction and to provide alternative economic visions for development that will mean real jobs for everyone," says longtime resident Chesney Doyle. "Everybody wants the condos. We just want to work together with the city and the developers to create a safe plan that will be an economic win for all."