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City to hold public hearing for Downtown District changes

The City of Oxford will provide citizens with another opportunity to express their concerns about the proposed Downtown District ordinance on Monday, July 2 at 10 a.m. at the Oxford Conference Center.

After the first public hearing for the ordinance on June 19 led to a filled-to-capacity City Hall Courtroom, with residents spilling into the stairwell, Mayor Robyn Tannehill suggested the need for a meeting at a larger venue.

The Downtown District Ordinance has been a cause of concern for many residents, including chef John Currence, who spoke at the first hearing.

“While we’ve talked about a lot of the micro-issues with the document created so far, it is clear, that the way this reads out shows much greater, overarching issues that could be argued as far as invasion of privacy, first amendment infringement and the potential for the municipal ordinance superseding state law,” Currence said at the hearing. “In 26 years, I’ve seen a number of hot-button issues. This is something that is very significant for the community, but it is very clear that this deserves much more consideration and discussion than to hurry and create an ordinance with limited discussion.”

The Oxford Board of Aldermen also released a series of emails from concerned citizens following the meeting. Among the citizens’ concerns were ordinance language regarding the “event venues” section, the boundaries of the district and the use of ID scanners.

Following the June 19 meeting, the aldermen released a revised version of the ordinance, which is located in the minutes from the June 19 meeting online at http://www.oxfordms.net/board-of-aldermen-agenda.

Public outcry from the owner of the Lyric Oxford, Bradley Bishop, as well as the statements of those in support of the Lyric, changed one point in the ordinance which many said was problematic.

As the only “event venue” in the proposed Downtown District area, the Lyric would have had to comply with regulations that did not apply to any other business. One of those regulations was that all events at the Lyric would have to be permitted through the Oxford Police Department, and could be denied by the department.

Fearing censorship of some events, Bishop posted a public letter on the Lyric’s Facebook page urging citizens to write to aldermen and ask them to make a change. The post was viewed by more than 25,000 people and shared by hundreds. A list of emails sent to the aldermen by concerned citizens was also released by the city.

Emily McGlohn, a former resident of Oxford who said she visits often, expressed concern in her email to the aldermen about the proposed regulations that targeted the Lyric, saying it would use the guise of public safety to diminish the public’s right to freedom of speech.

“This is a diminishment of everyone’s rights,” McGlohn’s email said. “The right to say what we want, listen to what we want and exhibit what we want must be guarded – even if it must be guarded.”

The aldermen responded, and after meeting with Bishop and OPD Chief Joey East, made the decision to remove any language concerning the denial of an event.

The ordinance now reads, “The application shall be reviewed by the Chief of Police or his/her designee, who may require certain safeguards or conditions relative to such event.”

Those safeguards, in addition to the safety requirements all businesses in the district, will be based on crowd size, potential for street crowding, amount and training of security guards and adequacy of the event venue’s ingress and egress plan. According to the most recent draft of the ordinance, conditions that may be imposed include additional security presence and emergency action or evacuation plans tailored to the event being held.

In addition, the aldermen also added language in the ordinance for the police chief or a designee to impose other requirements deemed necessary “in light of specific, articulable safety or health concerns, are necessary for the safety of business employees, patrons or the public.”

OPD cannot, however, deny a permit at an event venue.

During the first public hearing and in the emails released by the aldermen, citizens also expressed concern about the area of the Square which would fall into the Downtown District. Originally, the proposed district would include the businesses on the west side of Courthouse Square, proceeding west on Jackson Avenue to include those businesses on the south side of Jackson Avenue to South 10th Street; then proceeding south to the north side of Van Buren Avenue to include those businesses on the east side of South 10th Street; and then proceeding east on Van Buren Avenue to South Lamar Boulevard to include those businesses on the North side of Van Buren Avenue.

Attorney Milton “Dee” Hobbs spoke on behalf of several affected businesses during the first public hearing.

“One of the main concerns for the folks I’m speaking for is the geographical boundary of the proposed district,” Hobbs said during the hearing. “If we’re going to do this, it should be from Chicken on a Stick to Lindsey’s Chevron, and from Saint Peter’s Church to City Hall – the entire business district.”

As a result of Hobbs’ comments and others, the most recent draft of the ordinance provides two more options for the Downtown District area. Option two would define the Downtown District as the entire area of the Square, and option three would apply the Downtown District requirements to all businesses that sell or distribute alcohol, beer and light wine within city limits.

Above all, Tannehill said she, the board of aldermen and OPD wanted to create a safer place for Oxonians and visitors to the community.

“Our main goal is to work with our bars and entertainment venues to provide as safe of an environment as we can,” Tannehill said. “We want this to be a document that benefits all of us. It’s a genuine offer of public input. We wouldn’t be having multiple meetings and hearings if we didn’t want your input.”