September 13, 2019 10:10:07 AM
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi Supreme Court put the final nail in the coffin last week on a civil lawsuit that lasted two years, eight months and challenged the rezoning of the North Star Industrial Park property in north Starkville.
The Starkville Board of Aldermen voted 6-1 in January 2017 to rezone about 360 acres of land near the intersection of Highways 389 and 82 from commercial to manufacturing. Days later, the owners of the neighboring land sued, claiming a lack of evidence of a need to rezone.
Bettye Bell, Mary S. Bell, Margaret Copeland, Laura B. White and LMK LLC filed and appealed their case multiple times until their petition for a writ of certiorari in the Mississippi Supreme Court was denied Sept. 6, a decision which was filed Thursday.
LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins called the court's decision "fantastic news" for the city and county in a statement emailed to The Dispatch on Thursday.
"We are very pleased, although not surprised, by the Mississippi Supreme Court's decision today," Higgins said. "Now, we can move quickly to complete the remaining park improvements and work to start seeing the rewards of the investment this community made two years ago."
Mayor Lynn Spruill said the end of the lawsuit is a relief.
"It is exactly the outcome that I expected, and I think the dilatory tactics employed by those who pursued it were just not in the city's best interest," Spruill said. "I'm delighted that it is over and done with, and we can aggressively market this industrial park in a way that we have not been able to heretofore."
The property owners, all members of the Bell family, asserted in a public hearing before the aldermen's vote that the character of the land had not changed enough to justify rezoning. They also expressed concerns about how the park would affect their land.
Oktibbeha County Circuit Court Judge Jim Kitchens ruled in favor of the rezoning in May 2017. He wrote in his ruling that Starkville aldermen "had a reasonable evidentiary basis" for its decision to rezone the properties for manufacturing and the change "was not arbitrary, capricious, discriminatory or illegal."
Additionally, the Bell family did not sufficiently "show that the decision was invalid," Kitchens wrote.
The property owners brought the case to the state Supreme Court, which remanded it to the state Court of Appeals. The court upheld Kitchens' ruling in January of this year and refused to rehear the case in June.
Garan Manufacturing is the industrial park's first confirmed tenant and has already made plans to relocate to an area of the park that was not under litigation. The LINK was in contact with other companies over the past 18 months, but the lawsuit made it difficult to market the park and attract potential tenants, Higgins previously told The Dispatch.
"It is sad that we have lost valued time and new industry opportunities," Higgins said in his statement. "Key parts of the necessary infrastructure improvements were also delayed while this zoning appeal dragged on."
There is no way of knowing exactly how much time and money the city missed out on due to the delays the lawsuit caused, Spruill said.
Higgins said in July that a large company was interested in moving into the park, depending on the outcome of the lawsuit. LINK Chief Operating Officer Macaulay Whitaker said this morning the unnamed company is still considering it.
The Bell family could not be reached for comment by press time Friday. Mary S. Bell, one of the agents behind LMK LLC, and Laura White did not respond to multiple calls and messages from The Dispatch.
The city and Oktibbeha County issued a combined $14 million in bonds in July 2017 to fund the construction of the park. Entities including the Tennessee Valley Authority, 4-County Electric Power Association, Atmos Energy Corporation and the Mississippi Department of Transportation have also contributed money for construction, which has been in progress for a year and a half, Spruill said.
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