Pearl is taking dramatic — and some say unprecedented and unconstitutional – steps to rid the city of manufactured homes and to downsize existing apartment complexes.
October brought requirements that manufactured home parks and rental complexes build community storm shelters able to accommodate all residents and withstand the force of a F-2 tornado. In addition, the City mandated apartment complexes be retrofitted with interior fire sprinklers.
In 2013, council members enacted a minimum size requirement of 1,400 square feet for manufactured homes and set size requirements for multi-family apartments ranging from 850 square feet for one-bedroom units to 1,500 for units with two or more bedrooms.
Now comes a far reaching ordinance that aims to erase all “non-conforming” uses from the City’s property rolls. Manufactured homes and apartment complexes are specific targets of the ordinance set for a 6 p.m. public hearing on Jan. 20 at Pearl City Hall.
It’s all about public safety and ensuring renters get real value for their money, city officials insist.
No, it’s a disturbing attempt to hijack property rights, opponents argue.
“These ordinances are designed to eliminate rather than regulate,” said Ben Williams, a real estate law specialist and Watkins & Eager managing member.
James Bobo, who has been Pearl city attorney since 1995, said he wrote the ordinance after concluding the City had created a void in public safety through lax land-use policies. “Now, the City leaders could sit on their hands and hope the folks in apartment buildings don’t burn to death, like the five folks in an apartment complex in Spartanburg, S.C., did in December 2014 or they could sit on their hands and ignore the fact that Pearl is located in one of the most active tornado alleys on the planet,” Bobo said in an email.
Bobo said a few “rich landowners have declared they will never make their properties safe. But instead of pandering to these few rich landowners, the City Leaders are acting to make folks in Pearl safer, and they firmly believe that the poor deserve to be safe sooner rather than never.”
Mayor Brad Rogers, who is in his second 4-year term, is an enthusiastic supporter of the new land-use rules Bobo has proposed. “I see it as bringing our rental housing into good code,” he said in an interview Monday.
“We don’t want these non-conformities to be expanded or to continue forever,” he added.
“We’ve needed this for a long time,” the mayor said. “If you look back at the last five years, we’ve been in the direct line of numerous tornadoes and been hit by two.”
He charged landlords are charging unjustifiably high rents in the blue-collar city of about 25,000 people. “We have people over here who are paying $600 and $700 a month for places that you wouldn’t want to walk into,” Rogers added.
Justin Peterson, general counsel for Grove Acres manufactured home park owner State Street Group, called the ordinance “just another step in a series of steps the City has made to eliminate rental properties within its borders.”
State Street Group is suing Pearl over the City’s refusal to let it replace homes at Grove Acres that have been moved out of the 10-acre park.
Peterson said he is unsure what steps State Street Group will take to counter the newest ordinance that specifies an Oct. 1, 2016 removal of non-conforming uses such as Grove Acres. “We’ll consider what will be the best course of action,” he said.
Watkins & Eager’s Williams said he is struggling to understand why Pearl is taking away the grandfathered status of manufactured homes and apartments. “We’re talking about constitutionally protected property rights,” he said. “In at least one instance, the City annexed an operating mobile home park into the city and is now trying to zone it out of business.”
He said his first concern is the density limit of six units a net acre that will be put on manufactured homes in the Manufactured Home Subdivision district. The limit is “economically unviable,” he said. “We’re not talking about decimating it. We’re talking about eliminating 70 percent of it.”
Pearl is not the only metro Jackson city seeking to retroactively enforce new building density limits. Williams’ client The Gables rental apartments in Ridgeland recently got a thumbs down from city officials to maintain the density Ridgeland approved for The Gables nearly a decade ago.
Referring to both Ridgeland and Pearl, Williams said, “The idea that on any day a city can just decide they don’t like some type of housing or business is un-American.”
Taxpayers, he said, “are about to fund a huge amount of legal expenses to defend cities against the cities’ unprecedented, heavy-handed, unconstitutional and discriminatory acts.”
Four lawsuits involving seven apartment complexes have been filed in Ridgeland, according to Williams. He said The Gables will seek to overturn its density denial through a “bill of exceptions” with the court.
Failing to prevail there could force owners of The Gables to either tear down or shutter some units.
Marty Milstead, executive VP of the Homebuilders Association of Mississippi, in recent months has tried to negotiate comprises with officials in both Ridgeland and Pearl. He now concedes the efforts were to no avail.
Of the proposed Pearl ordinance, Milstead said it is misleading to characterize the measure as a public safety enhancement. “That has nothing to do with safety when you are talking about changing the zoning and taking units out of inventory.”
Passage of the proposed ordinance “won’t be without a challenge,” Milstead said.
“We purely think it has got all kinds of constitutional issues.”
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