Appeals court affirms ruling in industrial park case

Ryan Phillips
SDN Editor

The Mississippi Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld a circuit judge’s 2017 ruling on the rezoning of property to be used as part of the new industrial park.

Some of the initial site work has already begun for the new industrial park, the property of which is located on land owned by the Oktibbeha County Economic Development Association (OCEDA). The land runs east back to the intersection of the Highway 82 and Highway 389 intersection.

While the industrial park plans were initially formed during the administration of Mayor Parker Wiseman, current Mayor Lynn Spruill has continued the support for the project from City Hall, in addition to working in tandem with Oktibbeha County officials to follow through on the plans.

The site has been lauded as a “game changer” by local economic development officials, including the Golden Triangle Development LINK, who was served as the spearhead for not only the application process, but the development of the site. Spruill said she was “delighted” that the city’s actions have been recognized as reasonable and sustainable by the state Court of Appeals.

“I never doubted that we were doing the right thing to bring jobs and prosperity to our community,” she said on Tuesday. “It is my hope that the Bell family will support this decision and allow the City to continue to move forward in a positive way. I am eager for the new park to become everything we think it can be and this is great news to start the new year. “

Laura White, one of the appellants that has been a vocal opponent of the industrial park being, said she expected the affirmation of Circuit Judge Jim Kitchens’ ruling, which upheld the Starkville Board of Aldermen’s 6-1 decision to approve an application filed by the Golden Triangle Development LINK to rezone 360 acres from “general business” and “residential” to “manufacturing” for the industrial park.

White, along with Mary Bell, Margaret Copeland and Bettye Bell, initially appealed the Board of Aldermen’s decision to the Circuit Court, which Kitchen’s upheld in January 2017.

Despite Tuesday’s decision, White says the fight is not over, as she meets with her legal counsel to determine what the next move will be. For an appeal, the next stop would be the Mississippi Supreme Court.

White pointed to one instance in particular where the Court of Appeals sided with city and county officials regarding the comprehensive plan that encouraged the location of industrial areas near highways and within an easy commute of the labor force. With updated highway access for the industrial park, it would constitute what White referred to as a “change of neighborhood” in the opinion of the Court of Appeals.

“We’ve known all along we would have to follow through with it, there are court cases where what they used for this ruling, such as a road constituted change of a neighborhood,” White said, explaining the differences in interpretation for the courts. “In the Supreme Court, they have ruled a road does not constitute a change of a neighbor.”

White said her camp will discuss the matter for a couple of days and will proceed. She said she initially planned for the property to be used as a retirement community, but conceded in a phone interview on Tuesday, saying Starkville “isn’t conducive to a retirement community.”

“It’s tough for individuals to go against a city and a bunch of people getting paid big dollars,” she said. “It’s going entirely out of my pocket.”

LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins said on Tuesday that White has 14 days to appeal the decision and if the Supreme Court takes up the cases, Higgins said a ruling would be expected quickly.

Higgins said prospective tenants are already in the works for the industrial park, but the ongoing litigation has slowed the process.

“It’s just more lost opportunity,” Higgins said of the possible appeal to another court. “I think that’s the Bell family’s primary goal.”

He then said there are currently 80 acres on the property zoned for distribution and warehousing, which has been the primary focus of the joint effort of the city of Starkville, Oktibbeha County, OCEDA, and the LINK.

Work on the park’s water and sewer is also moving along, Higgins said.

Higgins looked ahead, saying he thinks the appeal will be decided by the summer, in favor of the developers, who could then begin marketing the property as planned by this summer, as well.

“All we’re doing is delaying the inevitable,” he said of the protracted legal battle over the property. “Who is it that loses here? It’s the community.”

The project has been a contentious one, despite overwhelming support from the local business community, with some, including those appealing the ruling, questioning both the use of public funds on the project and the ability of local economic development officials to fill the space one the industrial park is fully functional.

In July 2017, the city of Starkville and Oktibbeha County approved a measure to issue $7 million each in bonds for the development of the LINK-backed industrial park.

The site itself was approved by a 5-2 vote from the Starkville Board of Aldermen in May 2016.