By JACK WEATHERLY
The city of Ridgeland has denied major points in a court filing against its June 19 approval of a site for a gas station across Highland Colony Parkway from a 45-acre site that would include a proposed Costco Wholesale store.
The case in Madison County Circuit Court comes after opponents of the so-called third phase of the Renaissance at Highland Colony mall, succeeded in getting the state Supreme Court to block that project because it found that a zoning change was illegal and done only to favor the development.
The initial case began in 2015 and drew more than 2,000 petition signatures from residents in opposition to the development, which they contended would attract heavy traffic and devalue residential property in the vicinity.
The city argued in its response filed Friday in Madison County Circuit Court that the station to be built on two acres adheres to the city zoning code.
The station is designed for use by members of Costco, a private wholesale club along the lines of Sam’s Club.
Opponents of the station – who constituted the majority of the plaintiffs who successfully stopped the development of the larger site — argued that the “retail” sale of fuel means to the general public.
But the city argues that, whether private or public, the station is not in conflict with the ordinance.
The city’s zoning code defines gas station or service station as “any area of land . . .used primarily for the retail sale of gasoline, diesel fuel, ethanol, oil . . . .”
The city argued that it “likely” does not have the authority to deny approval of a site that complies with zoning ordinances.
In a related matter, the city stated that, contrary to the argument made by opponents, Aldermen Charles “Chuck” Gautier and Wesley Hamlin, who were in favor of the site plan in the 4-3 vote, had no reason to recuse themselves.
“Board attorney [Jerry Mills] advised [the board at the June 19 meeting] his own research and informal phone conference with the Mississippi Ethics Commission had resulted in the conclusion that there was no need for recusal.”
Tom Hood, executive director of the commission, told the Mississippi Business Journal on Tuesday that he does not recall talking with Mills or anyone else representing the city about the case.
Regardless, neither he nor the commission offers unofficial advice, Hood said.
Regardless, the matter would have to be taken up by the commission, not Hood, he said.
Hood said it is common for board attorneys pressed for time to get guidance from the commission, without requesting formal guidance.
He said, however, that he cannot by law reveal whether a formal opinion has been issued. Opinions are posted on the commission website with “identifying information,” e.g., Costco or Ridgeland, redacted.
Hood emphasized that the commission does not issue informal opinions, but that it is the board attorney’s job to offer legal guidance to his employer.
He emphasized that typically opinions about such conflicts are not taken up if they are “speculative.”
Hamlin and Gautier stood to gain pecuniary benefits to, respectively, Church Life Church of the Highlands, and Kerioth Corp. and Crye-Leike Realtors, opponents argued.
Hamlin is a member of the church and, according to opponents of the Costco development, a former youth pastor there.
The church is adjacent to the main Costco site, sold a quarter of an acre to the city for $66 a square foot, compared with $8 to $17 a square foot for other prime commercial real estate in the city, the opponents said in their filing.
But the city’s response contends that the property was taken from the church under eminent domain authority and also includes “lost parking spaces,” the city said.
Also its brief stated that Hamlin had never been youth pastor at the church.
Gautier, a Realtor, has an association with the Kerioth Corp., a developer, and Crye-Leike Realtors.
Gautier’s “relationship with Kerioth is only as a 1099 contractor . . . [and he] receives no salary from Kerioth and has no direct pecuniary interest in Kerioth.” the city said in its filing.
Both sides have asked Judge Steve Ratcliff for permission to make oral arguments.
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