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January 9, 2019 10:31:21 AM
The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.
The state Court of Appeals has upheld an Oktibbeha County Circuit Court decision affirming the city of Starkville's rezoning of land for an under-construction industrial park.
The court, in a decision issued Tuesday afternoon, ruled unanimously in favor of the decision.
However, the legal battle over the industrial park isn't over, as a nearby property owner, Laura White, confirmed to The Dispatch on Tuesday evening her family plans to appeal the decision to the Mississippi Supreme Court.
The industrial park, which is scheduled to be completed later this year, sits on about 400 acres of land north of the Highway 82-Highway 389 intersection in north Starkville. The Golden Triangle Development LINK, which is developing the site, filed an application for rezoning about 360 acres from general business and residential to industrial in December 2016.
Aldermen approved the rezoning in January 2017.
Nearby property owners -- LMK LLC, Bettye Bell, Mary S. Bell, Margaret Copeland and Laura B. White -- appealed the decision to Oktibbeha County Circuit Court, where Judge Jim Kitchens affirmed the decision in May 2017.
The property owners then appealed the matter to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which remanded it to the Court of Appeals. They argued, according to the ruling, the LINK "failed to support its rezoning application with clear and convincing evidence and that the rezoning failed to comply with the city's comprehensive plan."
The appeals court, in its ruling, pointed to documentation the LINK provided with its rezoning application, including maps and aerial photos that showed nearby ongoing and recently completed commercial development and land for sale for commercial development; city zoning maps from 2003 and 2013; staff reports from Starkville's planning department that discussed changes to the area; a consultant report prepared in conjunction with the city's 2016 comprehensive plan; and a copy of the city's 2005 comprehensive plan that discussed the need for more industrial sites near the intersections of major highways.
The court also found that the LINK's request was consistent with both Starkville's 2005 and 2016 comprehensive plans.
"Because the record contains substantial credible evidence to show the board's approval of the LINK's rezoning application was fairly debatable and complied with the city's comprehensive plan, we affirm the circuit court's judgment upholding the Board's decision," the ruling says.
Mayor Lynn Spruill said she's "extremely pleased" with the decision. She said the park should be a valuable addition to Starkville.
"It's important in ways that hopefully the Bell family would come to understand as we move forward," she said. "It is my hope that they would not appeal this, but if they do, I understand that is their option. But I am hopeful that we will be able to proceed. I think that we are going to be very successful in our ultimate outcome and I do believe there will be things coming to this industrial park that are going to make a huge difference in the community."
Supreme Court appeal coming
LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins said his people were "feeling like Clemson" on Tuesday -- in reference to the 2018-19 college football national champions.
However, he said he was aware of the property owners' intentions to file an appeal. Still, there is a chance the court might not hear it.
"Remember, they appealed it to the Supreme Court to start with," Higgins said. "Our lawyers tell us that if there was something earth-shattering about this case or it was setting precedent, the Supreme Court might have already heard it. The fact that they sent this down to the lower court shows they may not. I think by early summer, this thing is resolved, period."
White, however, said the property owners met with their attorney on Tuesday and plan to continue fighting the rezoning. She said the nine-page ruling is short and doesn't address the points the property owners made. She also questioned using unemployment to push for the park while Oktibbeha County's unemployment rate has hovered at about 4 percent.
"Now the taxpayers are burdened with $14 million to pay for the development of this industrial park, which they intend to give to some businesses of some sort to attract jobs to the area," she said. "Yet unemployment is extremely low. Those willing to work in Oktibbeha County are already working."
Higgins said the LINK will continue to market about 80 acres on the east side of the property that's already zoned for commercial development. He said one tenant is in the "final, final stages" of locating on the property. However, he said, the ongoing legal battle is restricting the LINK's ability to market the main core of the industrial park property because it would be "catastrophic" if a business located on the property and it got rezoned.
"Literally, the losers in this are Starkville and Oktibbeha County," he said. "Not because of the money, because we've got some soreheads who are mad that we wouldn't buy their land. We wouldn't be having this fight if we would have written them a quarter-million dollar check and bought that land."
However, White said Higgins' claim is a "big fat lie." She said the land, which has been in her family for more than 100 years, wasn't up for purchase. She said the family refused a LINK advance to purchase the property.
"Our land was not for sale and never would have been," she said. "That's part of Mr. Higgins' problem -- he has a one-sided view of life. ... Perhaps it's because it was rejected that he has a problem with it."
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