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Ridgeland property rights tussle is expected to have wide impact


Sunchase Apartments in Ridgeland … Photo by Tacy Rayburn

Four lawsuits challenging Ridgeland’s new multi-family zoning law are expected to have far-reaching implications for property rights and growth management in Mississippi.

All of the suits – three federal and one state — allege unconstitutional infringements on property rights. Violations of the federal Fair Housing Act are alleged in one of the complaints while others allege Ridgeland seeks to reduce the number of minorities living in the city by outlawing affordable rental apartments that attract them. Still others claim the tough land-use measures are a way of clearing out apartment complexes in southeast Ridgeland to make way for a mixed-use development of single-family homes, shops and restaurants.

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A question prominently raised in all of the legal filings is whether multi-family rental complexes can continue indefinitely as noncomforming uses.

Not if the uses run afoul of zoning provisions enacted under the state’s mandate that localities have laws consistent with their comprehensive land-use plans, Ridgeland argues.

The City last February enacted multi-family building densities of 10 units an acre and warns it will force apartment complexes that do not comply to “cease” the nonconforming use within a specified time. That actually means demolition — and probably sooner rather than later, lawyers for the rental properties say.

Ridgeland, in a Jan. 23 response to a suit filed in Madison County Circuit Court by the Van Mark Apartments, said it set a goal in its 1988 comprehensive plan of reducing multi-family housing densities and thus sparing the city the impacts they bring in the way of traffic congestion, public safety protections and public utilities. A series of zoning ordinances that followed has sought to lower densities to the now current 10 units an acre, Ridgeland’s attorney, Kelly Simpkins of Wells Marble & Hurst, said in last week’s filing.

The Van Mark, 6811 Old Canton Road, has 316 apartments that cover 24.26 contiguous acres, for a density of 13.02 units an acre.

To buy time, the Van Mark and other nonconforming apartments in Ridgeland, about a dozen and a half altogether, must apply for a classification from the City. A Class A offers the most time, while Class B affords less and Class C specifies removal in February of this year.

A Class A can be revoked at any time upon the request of an “interested party,” according to the  February 2014 zoning ordinance.

If a nonconforming property fails to register with the City, it automatically receives a Class C designation.

All of the classifications are unconstitutional, the Van Mark’s attorney, W. Rodney Clement, argued in the Circuit Court filing Nov. 21 for a declaratory judgment.

Lawyer Michael Cory Jr. represents Sunchase of Ridgeland, Everest Pinebrook, Rainbow, RR Apartments, Jordon Ridge and Oakbrook apartment complexes in a federal court filing for declaratory and injunctive relief. Proper land-use requires a balancing test, he said in an interview last week. The test is whether the burden on apartment owners and residents is warranted on behalf of public health, safety and welfare.

The density requirement?

“No health and welfare issues there,” Cory said. “It’s just arbitrary.”

Ridgeland, he said, “is going way beyond what are the municipal powers to control land use.”

Summing up his multi-client suit, he cites the density limits as an “intrusion on property rights” and claims Ridgeland officials never notified the apartment complex owners of the pending action on the zoning ordinance.

Ridgeland, in response, says it was not obligated to provide notice but it did so anyway.

Cory said a recent 8-to-1 Mississippi Court of Appeals ruling in a separate case he handled last year could figure heavily into the outcome of his Ridgeland suit. In that ruling on behalf of the Cleveland Mobile Home Park in Richland, the court held that nonconforming uses can have grandfather status provided the use is a “continuation” and not an expansion of the nonconforming use.

The case arose after Richland tried to keep the mobile home park from re-renting vacated pads.

The ruling came as a “very strong statement by the Mississippi Court of Appeals on property rights,” Cory said.

If the state Supreme Court affirms the ruling on appeal, the ruling most likely will have a huge impact on the Ridgeland property rights cases, he said.

While property rights are central to Cory’s filing, he also argues that Ridgeland’s action violated the Fair Housing Act – even if it did not intend to do so.

Many of the apartment residents subject to displacement are minorities, chiefly black and Hispanic, he said.

“Municipalities may not use their zoning authority to exclude housing for a group of people on the basis of race or national origin,” Cory wrote in his filing.

The test on a Fair Housing violation, he said, is whether “the policies and practices have a disparate impact on groups protected by” the Fair Housing Act.

Cory’s federal court filing repeats a conspiracy claim made in a separate action by attorneys for Baymeadow Apartments, another complex at odds with the zoning law and facing demolition.

The suits claim city officials in advance of enacting the February 2014 zoning ordinance met out of the public eye to devise a way to rid the city of “undesirables.”

Exclusion is part of the city’s calculation, charge attorneys Sheldon Austin and William Drinkwater of Brunini, Grantham, Grower & Hewes. In the 45-page suit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi Northern Division, the attorneys claim a key city official in at least one private meeting described the removal of Baymeadows and other rental complexes as a way to exclude or decrease the number of “undesirables” who reside in the city.

The suit alleges the rezoning and the decision to exclude grandfathering of apartment rentals as allowed uses grew out of private meetings among city officials, developers, builders and real estate agents in the spring and summer of 2009.

In their version of events, Austin and Drinkwater say the scheme started as a plan to initiate the “Southeastern Ridgeland Development Project,” a plan that they say involves replacing Baymeadows and four other apartment complexes with “cottage” style single-family houses selling in the $150,000-$200,000 range.

Alan Hart, Ridgeland community development director, said he can’t comment on the Southeast Ridgeland Development Project.

Though Ridgeland lawyer Kelly Simpkins criticizes the Baymeadow lawyers for what he says are “misquotes” and “quotes which lack proper context,” he acknowledged in his response that discussions about the Southeast Ridgeland Development Project occurred.

“At various times, city officials gathered input from individuals, professionals, businesses and organizations in the community and that” officials “explored funding options for the project,” Simpkins said.

The Southeast Ridgeland Development Project “reflects the collective vision and is in the best interest of Ridgeland’s citizens,” he said.


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