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WHAT’S IN A NAME? Costco case may hinge on definition of ‘service station’

The approved design for the station.

By JACK WEATHERLY

Most Costco Wholesale Stores have a fueling station.

The question remains: will the giant wholesale club go forward in Ridgeland without one?

An answer may await in Madison County Circuit Court, Judge Steve Ratcliff presiding.

Homeowners filed a brief last week fInalizing its challenge of the legitimacy of a site plan approved by the Ridgeland Board of Aldermen for the station.

The city has 30 days to respond formally. But city attorney Jerry Mills said Wednesday morning that the suit is frivolous and he said that two aldermen, Charles “Chuck” Gautier and Wesley Hamlin, were cleared in advance by the state Ethics Commission to vote on the matter and were not in a conflict of interest, as contended by the plaintiffs.

The state Supreme Court earlier this year declared that the site plan for the 100,000-square-foot-plus store as part of a 45-acre third phase of the Renaissance at Colony Park was approved as by a zoning change that was illegal.

A Costco official said in another case in another state that “plans for every new store include a gasoline fueling station.”

The developer, Mattiace Properties of Jackson, and Costco have not yet refiled a plan for the big-box store, which would be the anchor for the third phase.

Six of the nine homeowners in the first suit, all of whom live in the vicinity of the proposed third phase, are plaintiffs in the latest complaint.

The homeowners contend that the big-box store would change the character of the immediate area by attracting heavy traffic, thus devaluing heir property.

The current complaint states that “Costco is known around the nation for having long gas lines” adding that “there simply is nowhere to put the cars on a 2-acre fueling station.”

The brief, filed by Ridgeland-based attorney Steve Maloney, who also lives in the vicinity of the proposed development, argues that the developers “have taken a new approach to accommodate Costco.”

That came “prior to and after” the adverse decision by the Supreme Court on April 19.

The Board of Aldermen on Feb. 6 passed a moratorium to block a plan for a storage facility on a 9.5-acre plot across the Highland Colony Parkway from the store site. The the station plan had already been approved by the Architectural Review Committee.

Then the aldermen amended on April 3 the zoning ordinance to disallow the use for the storage facility.

On June 12 the Architectural Review Board approved the site plan for the Costco station, which would use two of the total of 9.5 acres, followed a week later with approval of the plan by the Board of Aldermen.

According to the suit, the lynchpin in the current case is whether the station is merely for fueling or includes other services to qualify it for what the city defines as a service station.

Interestingly, the suit continues, Costco has “successfully argued in other cases that a private Costco Club fueling facility was NOT a ‘service station.’”

The city’s definition of “service station” states that the primary purpose is for the “retail sale [of] gasoline, diesel fuel, ethanol, oil, or automobile accessories. . . .”

While the zoning ordinance list of definitions does not include “retail,” the lawsuit maintains that dictionary definitions are consistent in emphasizing that it means sale to the public.

“A private Costco Club fueling station is not a public retail facility,” the brief states.

Customers at the stations must have cards designated for use by Costco members , the suit continues, and cash is not allowed.

In the recusal matter, the plaintiffs argue that the two should have recused themselves in the case because of conflict of interest.

Despite letters sent to Aldermen Wesley Hamlin and Charles “Chuck” Gautier urging them not to vote on the site plan for the station, they did vote. It was passed 4-3, with Hamlin and Gautier for it.

Hamlin, who had been a youth pastor for Christ Life Church of the Highlands and still has close ties with the church, was asked by residents not to vote for the station in a detailed email letter prior to the June 19 vote.

The church, which is adjacent to the 45-acre Costco site, sold a quarter of an acre to the city for $66 a square foot, compared with what the brief says is range of $8 to $17 per square foot for prime commercial real estate in the city, a point made in the letter, according to the filing.

Gautier, who is a Realtor, has an association with Kerioth Corp., a development firm, and Crye-Leike Realtors, which is a conflict of interest, because the Costco presence would drive up land prices and benefit the firms, the plaintiffs argue.

An advisory opinion from the Mississippi Ethics Commission states: “an alderman must recuse himself from any . . . action by the board . . . if it would result in a pecuniary benefit to the company . . . such as an appreciation in the value of the real property.”

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