January 4, 2017 10:40:37 AM
The Starkville Board of Aldermen voted Tuesday to rezone more than 300 acres of land north of Highway 82 to make room for a Golden Triangle LINK-backed industrial park.
The park area, now zoned for manufacturing, includes mostly undeveloped or agricultural property near the intersection of Highways 82 and 389 that have long been zoned residential or commercial.
Aldermen voted 6-1 for the rezone following a lengthy, and sometimes contentious, public hearing. Ward 6 Alderman Roy Perkins opposed.
LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins said he was happy with the vote.
"I think we made our case for why it needed to be rezoned," he said. "I think the community leaders know that they need a new industrial park."
But nearby property owners who petitioned the city against the project were far from satisfied. Property owner Laura White, whose family owns more than 850 acres of land that completely surround the proposed site, spoke against the project during the public hearing. White was concerned about how the park would affect a creek that runs through the proposed site and feeds into a nearby wildlife management area. Another neighboring property owner, Bettye Bell, opposed the project because the park would surround her land.
White said she and the other petitioners would likely sue on grounds that the area has not sufficiently changed since its 2005 zoning to legally justify rezoning.
"We're confident that when we go to court, the court will find that," she said.
Twelve signatories submitted the petition last month after the Starkville Planning and Zoning Commission voted 5-0 to approve the rezoning request. Thanks to the petition, a supermajority -- five members -- of the Board of Aldermen had to approve rezoning the property.
Starkville business leaders and LINK representatives declared their support for the rezoning efforts on Tuesday. Jackson-based attorney Chris Pace argued there was a public need in Starkville for an industrial park that would provide jobs. Industries that had arrived in the Golden Triangle over the last few years have largely left Oktibbeha County behind, he said.
"There is a desperate need in Starkville, and certainly more broadly in Oktibbeha County, for higher quality, better paid jobs," Pace said.
But landowners opposing the project argued the character of the neighborhood had to have changed significantly to legally justify rezoning.
"This is not an industrial park, and it has not changed in that capacity," Pascagoula City Planner Donovan Scruggs said, speaking as an "expert witness" on behalf of the landowners.
He further argued that other areas in Starkville or even the Golden Triangle could be better used for an industrial park. The Golden Triangle already has about 6,300 acres of available industrial land anyway, he argued.
"To the extent that this (city) wants to continue to see residents ... drive half an hour to an hour (to Columbus, West Point or Tupelo) to go to work somewhere else and leave that tax base in neighboring counties, that's up to this board to make that determination," he said.
Aldermen speaking on the project's behalf said this may be Starkville's last best opportunity to compete with the growing industrial might of Lowndes and Clay counties, both of which have experienced LINK-led development in recent years.
"If we're really going to talk about manufacturing, ... if we're really going to talk about trying to find jobs for lower- and middle-class individuals, as a city, we have to decide tonight or soon," Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver said.
Amos defends conflict of interest claim
Also during Tuesday's meeting, Michelle Amos mounted a public defense against a claim she had a conflict of interest involving the industrial park property.
Amos, who chairs both the LINK and Greater Starkville Development Partnership boards of directors, is also owner and broker of some industrial park properties per her position at Coldwell Banker S.R.E. Realtors in Starkville.
White emailed aldermen recently suggesting Amos' position to profit from the rezone created a conflict of interest.
However, Amos read a written statement to aldermen saying, though she usually does not advocate for projects her company is involved in, in this case she did not want to "stand quietly and allow yet another opportunity (to) die on the vine."
Amos provided The Dispatch a copy of the written statement, but she declined to comment further.
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