Residents in two areas north of Clarksdale will continue to be county residents and not be annexed into the city after a ruling issued by the state’s highest court last week.
The ruling apparently puts an end to a land tussle that dates back eight years and could end up costing local taxpayers nearly $1.5 million.
And while property owners north of town are celebrating the high court ruling, city of Clarksdale officials may soon begin the process of bringing three areas sitting east and south of town into the city limits.
The Mississippi Supreme Court concluded Thursday that a Nov. 14, 2016 ruling in Coahoma County Chancery Court by special chancellor Breland Hilburn was correct in that the city’s attempted annexation of areas along Viney Ridge and Friars Point roads was unreasonable.
“After evaluating the evidence in light of our standard of review, we find that the chancellor’s decision was a reasonable one based on the evidence. Therefore, we affirm,” said the Supreme Court of Mississippi in a split ruling among its nine justices.
Affirming the decision was Chief Justice William L. “Bill” Waller, who was joined by justices Leslie King, Josiah Coleman, Dawn Beam and Robert Chamberlin.
Justice James Maxwell concurred in part and dissented in part by saying if the city’s proposed annexation of areas 1 (which include the area around Viney Ridge and Wright roads) and 2 (t) was unreasonable, its annexation of the other three areas was “even more unreasonable.” He was joined in his opinion by Justices Michael Randolph and David Ishee.
Chris Overton lives on Wright Road and was a member of the county Board of Supervisors when the City of Clarksdale first voted for annexation in December 2011.
“I am so glad the county board of supervisors saw fit to fight this and continue it throughout. They saw the importance of what was going on,” said Overton, who was joined on the board of supervisors at the time by Paul Pearson, Johnny Newson, Dr. Roger Weiner and Timothy Burrell.
He said the properties along Viney Ridge and Wright roads are a mixed lot, numbering from one to 10 to 35 acres. It’s rural living with many folks having outdoor animals and even a few owning horses.
“Personally, I’m more than happy with the ruling. We had a lot of people who said they wouldn’t be able to pay the higher (city) taxes,” Overton said. “I’m just so sorry for those people who were annexed.”
Hilburn’s ruling, affirmed by the state Supreme Court, allowed the city to annex property known as Areas 3, 4 and 5.
Area 3 includes land along Highway 61, as well as portions of land along New Africa Road and Highway 49 just past Hopson Plantation.
Area 4 includes mostly commercial and agricultural lands immediately off Highway 61, including Lizzie and Grattafiori roads. Included in that area is the Shady Nook convenience store.
And Area 5 includes a small section of Highway 61 further southwest from where Area 4 stops, which is around Bramlett-Davenport Road, and includes Flowers-Catalina Road. That area is down by the “Goat Ranch” golf course.
In his separate opinion, Maxwell wrote that there was a failure by the city to show why “annexation of Areas 3, 4 and 5 was a reasonable move for a city with a declining population and ample undeveloped land.”
Maxwell writes that it is belief that the city “leap frogs large swaths of undeveloped, agricultural land, reaching out to grab the nearest businesses and residences.”
In his opinion, Maxwell writes that it is not just the land near the future I-69 corridor Clarksdale seeks, but rather “it is specifically and almost exclusively land that already has houses and commercial property – in other words, people and entities that can be taxed.
“So, I find it hard not to read this map as anything other than a ‘tax grab’ – something this court has always viewed critically.”
Clarksdale City Clerk Cathy Clark said either party in the lawsuit will have 14 days following Thursday’s ruling to request a rehearing. If nobody makes a request, then she said the city will begin the process for annexation of Areas 3, 4 and 5. She anticipates the process could take a couple of months before those properties become part of the city.
Pearson, who is now president of the Coahoma County Board of Supervisors, said he is uncertain if county leaders will request a rehearing. He expects the county officials to discuss the matter with County Attorney Tom Ross during Wednesday’s regular meeting.
Pearson wasn’t celebrating the Supreme Court ruling.
“There’s no victories here,” he said. “This has been going on a long time. I just feel like it could have been handled a different way. Maybe back about eight years ago, if there had been a better line of communication or a different approach, possibly this could have been done a little bit better and the taxpayers would have benefitted from that decision.”
The legal tussle hasn’t been cheap.
Clark said the city had spent some $681,000 on attorneys from 2012 through October 2018. When added with the $345,000 the city paid consultant Mike Slaughter from 2012-16, that total climbs to over $1.026 million.
And that number is expected to rise as Clark said the last payment she made to the attorneys was in October and there have been additional court actions and closing costs since.
As for the county’s part, County Administrator Morgan Wood said they had spent approximately $340,000 in legal fees on the annexation case.
“I hate it,” Pearson said. “The city and county are working together now and good things are happening, but this shows that when we argue and fuss, we don’t get harmed by it, but the taxpayers do.”
At least one city official said he’ll not vote to challenge the ruling.
“I’m done with it. I won’t spend one more dollar on it,” said commissioner Bo Plunk, who was a member of the commission that voted for the annexation in 2011.
“The area that we did get, we’ll bring them up to code and make sure they get the service they deserve and need. Hopefully, we can get some business out there on the highway.”
Pearson’s concern is that the higher taxes could force some individuals to leave.
“I fear an exodus of city and county residents,” he said. “You can absolutely tax people out of your county. This is home for a lot of people, but if you don’t feel like you’re getting what you should for your taxes, then you go somewhere where you feel you’re getting your money’s worth.”
He said many of those residents who now live in those areas allow their dogs to run free, have horses and chickens.
“When you live in the county, you get your basic services. When you live in the city, you get some enhanced services,” Pearson said, noting garbage pickup, recreational facilities, neighborhood schools, better roads and sidewalks. “The people that are annexed will be paying for those services. I hope that they (the city of Clarksdale) are able to provide those enhanced services to those individuals who will be paying those taxes.”
The 46-page ruling seemingly puts an end to a saga that began in December 2011 when the City of Clarksdale, led by then-Mayor Henry Espy, voted in an annexation ordinance.
In November 2016, the Board of Supervisors voted to appeal Hilburn’s ruling. The vote was 4-1 with District 2 Supervisor Pat Davis supplying the only vote against the motion.
But the county’s motion wasn’t the only motion filed. Soon after the county’s action, the City of Clarksdale Mayor and Board of Commissioners voted to file a motion to cross-appeal.
Those actions eventually led to oral arguments in the case being presented in September 2018 and concluding with the court’s ruling on Thursday.