September 10, 2013 10:01:32 AM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
A dilapidated property has morphed into a unique problem for Lowndes County leaders.
Thomas Kyle, who lives at 245 Belle Circle, threatened to sue a contractor trying to clean his property, which is littered with old tires, scrap, assorted junk items and trash. The contractor was there by Lowndes County board of supervisor order.
Last week, following Kyle's threat, supervisors authorized attorney Tim Hudson to file a temporary restraining order against the Lowndes County resident.
Whether supervisors were in their parameters in filing the order, and whether law enforcement is needed on the property to keep the peace, will be decided in chancery court.
Local governing bodies make legislative decisions regularly when voting on proposed ordinances and setting policy, but they also sit as judicial bodies and have contempt power -- meaning they could enforce a decision they've made. For example, if they order clean up of a property they deem hazardous and the landowner attempts to intervene, that person can be taken into custody.
But that scenario is so rare that when Hudson called the state Attorney General's office to confirm the board's approach, the office was unable to find an example.
County board minutes show Kyle's property has been discussed several times dating to 2012. Supervisors say property is a haven for rodents and presents a safety and welfare issue. On May 6, the board ordered Kyle to clean the property within 30 days.
After that window expired and nothing had been done, the board notified Kyle the county will contract someone to clean up his property. The cost will be assessed to the landowner's property tax.
"We got to that point and we contracted somebody," Hudson said. "When he went out, the guy had a chain on the gate and also had a dog in there that the man was a little nervous about. Then the guy came out and said, 'Don't come on my property. I'll sue you if you do.'"
During a supervisors meeting Aug. 15, Sheriff Mike Arledge said he was contacted and sent chief deputy Marc Miley to the scene.
"Because of the situation we had with the homeowner there, he probably wanted to be violent and didn't want anybody to go on the property because we didn't have the proper paperwork to go in there in case something happened at that time," Arledge said. "We decided we better hold off until we got legal advice on situation. Our concern was also if somebody went over there and got hurt."
During that meeting, county administrator Ralph Billingsley said he had been in contact with Kyle off and on for several years and he was persistent in his intent to seek legal action.
Billingsley said he invited Kyle to the meeting, but he declined, citing the cost of fuel.
"He said he was not going to allow anybody on his property, that everything on there was either sold and waiting to be carried to somebody that had bought it," Billingsley said. "He said somebody in Memphis had bought the tires but he just hadn't had time to get them up there. The tin laying around is to construct a shed. He gave various examples of things on the property that are there for a reason and he was not removing those items."
District 3 supervisor John Holliman said he'd received complaints from neighbors about the property and had been trying to find a solution for three years.
Supervisor Leroy Brooks said the board should have a policy in place for situations like the one it has encountered with Kyle.
"I think if we have a clear policy that once we've gone through the process and they've failed to act, then ... I think we need to establish that as our end run on all these cases, that way we remove ourselves but yet we make sure it's done," Brooks said Sept. 3. "If it's that way, certainly you've got some legal grounds. I think if we take that route and let the public know we're going to do that, then it saves us a lot of coming back and forth and we've got some teeth in our enforcement."
Hudson later said due to the rarity of this situation, he's not sure such a policy is necessary.
"I really don't think we need to because we've been doing this 12 years and this is the first time this has come up," Hudson said. "I don't know if we need to do this in every case, only if we get a serious problem."
As for the explanation he received from the attorney general's office that they had not heard of supervisors using contempt power, Hudson decided to recommend the temporary restraining order instead.
"I don't want to plow new ground," he said. "I think this is the safest way to go."
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.