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FILE / MBJ Mobile home parks in Pearl and Richland similar to the one pictured have been involved in a legal battle that has favored the park owners.

Circuit judge rules for filling vacant mobile home lots in Pearl

By TED CARTER

Pearl has failed in an effort to show that its actions against a mobile park differed from those of Richland, whose attempt to prevent a manufactured  home park from refilling vacated lots met with defeat in the Supreme Court in May.

Like Richland, Pearl has no legal authority to stop a park owner from filling a vacant lot, Madison-Rankin Circuit Judge John H. Emfinger ruled last week.

Pearl City Attorney James Bobo said Friday he will meet with the mayor and City Council to decide whether to appeal.

The ruling in favor of Homewood Co.’s Grove Acres Mobile Home Community marked a second setback for the efforts of Rankin County communities to stop the filling of vacant mobile home spaces. The first ruling, given in a 9-0 Mississippi Supreme Court decision, applied to Richland.

Both rulings affirmed a property owner’s constitutional right to “enjoy” his property and to continue a nonconforming use that does not involve an expansion of the use.

» READ MORE: Federal suit charges Pearl discriminates against multi-family housing

The state Supreme Court ruling in late May struck down a similar land-use policy in Richland, overturning a ruling by Emfinger. The circuit judge had upheld Richland’s claim that filling of 30 or so vacant lots in the park on Old Highway 49 would expand a non-conforming use.

Pearl hoped to persuade Emfinger that the Grove Acres case had substantial differences from the Cleveland Mobile Home Park ruling. But Emfinger concluded in Wednesday’s ruling that in both cases a local government was attempting to apply a non-conforming use ordinance on a lot-by-lot basis rather than applying it to the manufactured home park as a whole.

“The issue before the court is almost identical,” Emfinger wrote in the latest ruling.

Like Cleveland Mobile Home Park in Richland, the Pearl park “has a constitutional right to continue its enjoyment of its property and the action by the City is a violation of Homewood’s constitutional right to enjoy its property,” the judge said.

Pearl’s action’s, he said, “would effectively destroy the mobile home park by attrition.”

Pearl “may not enact, enforce and/or interpret the 2009 (zoning) ordinance so as to prevent the lawful continuation of a nonconforming use,” Emfinger said in concluding his ruling.

Justin Peterson, general counsel for State Street Group, managers of the Groves Acres park, said Emfinger’s “decision speaks for itself,” and the park’s owners consider the case closed. “The court denied the city’s motion for additional briefing,” he said, referring to a mid August ruling from Emfinger.

The Cleveland Mobile Home Park ruling presented a clear obstacle to Pearl’s hopes of prevailing in its fight with Grove Acres. It would have to show the Grove Acres case differed substantially from the Cleveland case, a difficult task considering that  Emfinger had already signaled his intent to link the two cases. No ruling on Grove Acres would be made until the Supreme Court ruled on the Cleveland case, Emfinger said. He said he would accept no further motions until after the higher court ruled.

Bobo, the Pearl city attorney, had hoped to persuade Emfinger not to allow Homewood Co. to “operate a trailer park full of potential death traps until the end of time.”

Bobo argued that the Cleveland decision did not resolve issues raised in Pearl’s fight with Homewood, which bought the park at 2183 Old Brandon Road in 1998.

For a start, Bobo said, Homewood failed to show that Grove Acres is “a lawful pre-existing use.”

In its action against Cleveland Mobile Home Park, Richland erred by “suddenly attempting to place a new spin on a pre-existing 39-year-old zoning law.” Bobo said.

By contrast, Pearl adopted a new zoning ordinance in 2009 excluding mobile home parks from commercial zones, a process that included several public hearings and guidance from experts in municipal planning.

Once enacted, the city’s “exclusion of manufactured homes from commercial zones has been consistent and evenly applied,” he said.

The Pearl city attorney wanted Emfinger to distinguish manufactured homes from other types of  structures. “They are nothing like apartment buildings, parking garages or other fixed site-built structures,” Bobo said.

In a tornado, people are better of lying in a ditch than remaining in a properly tied down mobile home, he claimed.

Pearl’s “non site-built” homes “have historically tended to become eye-sores, a detriment on property values and to present a disproportionate drain on city services, including law enforcement,” Bobo said.

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