Hospital site dispute goes to Supreme Court

The Mississippi Supreme Court building in Jackson. Photo by STEPHEN McDILL / Mississippi Business JournalOXFORD — Opponents are fighting a judge’s order that lets the city of Oxford annex the site of Baptist Memorial Hospital-North Mississippi’s new hospital without going through a formal proceeding.

In March 2013, a Lafayette County chancery judge ruled in favor of several landowners who petitioned the court to allow Oxford to take in the property. The process is called inclusion, a procedure that produces the same result as annexation but is initiated by someone other than the city. It avoids what can be a long annexation process.

Kenneth Farrell and two other opponents appealed the decision to the Mississippi Supreme Court. Oral arguments in the case are planned for June 3.

Farrell argues the city of Oxford was misusing Mississippi’s inclusion statute and was “an attempt to divert development from other more desirable sites” in the city.

The attorney for the hospital and others argue neither Farrell nor the others live in Oxford.

“In fact, Mr. Farrell is a developer from Memphis, Tennessee, aggrieved by the decision of Baptist” to locate where it is as opposed to a site in which Farrell has an interest, J. Chadwick Mask, attorney for the hospital, wrote in a brief.

Baptist Memorial Hospital-North Mississippi is building a $300 million medical center on a 160-acre site south of Mississippi Highway 6. It will have 217 beds initially and could expand to 290 beds.

The petition to include the land inside the city limits was filed in February 2013 by Bob and Beth King, who sold the property to Baptist. The petition was filed so the new hospital could receive fire and police protection and city water and sewer services.

Baptist officials had said inclusion was not a stipulation of its plan for the hospital and that even if the state judge ruled differently, it would not have stopped construction of the facility.

Before Baptist purchased the land, there was a clause in the contract between Oxford, Lafayette County and Baptist that said if the city and county sold the current hospital to Baptist — which had been being leased to Baptist — that the new hospital would have to be built inside the city limits.

However, once Baptist selected the Kings’ land, city and county officials agreed to change wording in the contract to state that the new hospital could be built “partly in and partly out” of Oxford. Some of the land Baptist purchased is inside the city limits.

John Scanlon, attorney for Farrell and others, argued in briefs that state law requires an inclusion petition to be signed by two-thirds of the qualified electors residing in the area proposed to be included in the city limits. Scanlon said only one petitioner — Catherine Babb— lived in the area but moved out before the trial.

“The inclusion area has no qualified electors, and in fact has no residents at all, and did not on the day of trial. Thus, the trial court had no jurisdiction, and the trial court’s finding was manifestly wrong and not supported by substantial and credible evidence,” opponents say.

Mask, who also is lawyer for the Kings, said there was no violation of the two-thirds requirement in the law. Mask said in past decisions, the Supreme Court found the question of whether the “two-thirds” signature requirement has been met is determined when the petition is filed.

“As Ms. Babb was the sole qualified elector residing in the proposed inclusion area at the time both the original and amended inclusion petitions were filed and Ms. Babb signed both petitions, this court must reject the objectors’ argument,” Mask said.

The case is among dozens before the Supreme Court during its May-June term. A decision could come later this year.

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