By RUSSELL TURNER
A special judge approved an agreement last week clearing the way for the Town of Leakesville to expand its municipal boundaries through annexation.
Judge James D. Bell, of Ridgeland, issued an order Jan. 10 approving the town’s compromise agreement with a citizens’ group and setting the stage for the town to expand. In his order, Judge Bell said the town officials had met the legal burden of showing the proposed annexation is reasonable and ordered attorneys representing the Town of Leakesville to prepare a final decree detailing the annexation area and the new boundaries of the town.
Town Clerk Rex Garretson said town leaders welcomed the ruling and were ready to move forward. Garretson said he and other officials had been meeting with utility companies and other entities in preparation for the judge’s decision and said town officials will begin providing services such as police protection in the annexed areas 10 days after Judge Bell signs the final decree.
“The court still allows 30 days from (the judge’s) first judgement for appeals,” Garretson said. “After the 30 days, it legally becomes part of Leakesville, and our public works department will start serving the area.”
In Nov. 2016, Leakesville officials outlined a proposed annexation area that would have roughly quadrupled the town’s size. However, a group of citizens banded together to hire legal help to fight the annexation effort and late last year reached a settlement with town officials that drastically reduced the expansion area.
However, some of the residents involved with the group have property that remains in the town’s annexation plans and were not happy with the settlement. Six of them continued their fight and appeared in court on Nov. 6-7 to express their opposition. Those residents were not represented by legal counsel at the trial, but Judge Bell allowed them to sit in the juror box and actively participate in the proceedings and actively question and cross-examine witnesses called by the town’s attorneys.
“The Court understands the position of the objectors,” Judge Bell wrote in his Jan. 10 opinion and order. “Their families have lived on this land for generations. They want to continue with the quiet enjoyment of their property.”
“On the other hand, the Town is slowly dying. Yet, significant development has taken place nearby. This can only be expected to be exacerbated with the new (Miss. 57/63) bypass.”
Pointing to past legal precedent, Judge Bell wrote that several factors had to be considered when looking at the town’s annexation bid. He addressed those as follows:
– Is there a need to expand? The Town of Leakesville’s current limits covers 1.6 square miles and the judge wrote it would be “difficult to piece together enough property to develop a shopping center or grocery store…. The fact that significant spillover development has occurred so near to Leakesville is evidence that it is likely that most of that development wound not have occurred but for the fact the essential goods and services could be found in Leakesville… If Leakesville does not expand it will likely continue to decline, to the detriment of its inhabitants and to the County.”
– Is the proposed annexation area reasonably within the path of growth of Leakesville? The judge wrote in his order that the annexation is “along major roadways that service the Town” and the “Spillover development has already occurred in the annexation area.”
– Potential health hazards (sewage and waste) – attorneys for the town called an engineer as a witness who testified the soil in much of the annexation area was not suitable for septic systems and would benefit from a public sewer system. That viewpoint was contested but the judge wrote that “on balance, this factor favors the town.”
– The town’s financial ability – the judge ruled the evidence shows the town is able to provide the municipal services and improvements promised as part of the annexation.
– Need for zoning and planning in the area – the judge ruled the area needs development more than zoning, but said the issue favors neither side.
– Need for municipal services in the annexed area – the judge ruled that citizens would benefit from police protection provided by the town and from decreased fire insurance premiums.
– Past performance – “The Town has excelled in providing necessary and promised services to its citizens,” the judge wrote.
– Economic impact upon persons in the annexation area – while new town residents will see an increased tax bill, the judge wrote the burden would be small.
– Impact on minority voting – the judge ruled the evidence showed minimal impact on this issue.
– Do the residents of the annexation area benefit from the town without paying a fair share of taxes? In his ruling, Judge Bell pointed to fire protection services already extended outside the current town limits as evidence they do.
– The Town of Leakesville has never expanded its borders – this seemed to be a major factor in the judge’s decision. “If it does not expand, it will likely continue to decline,” Judge Bell wrote. “With a present population of less than 900, decline is not a choice its leaders are willing to live with; nor should they… The Town has met its burden to show that the proposed annexation is reasonable.”
The approved annexation expands the town limits in four separate areas. The first follows the right-of-way of Miss. 63 northwest from the town’s current limits and takes in Southeast Mississippi Correctional Facility and the Greene County Industrial park. The municipal boundary will also extend out along Old Avera Road to a section line just north of New Hope Baptist Church and to that same section line along Paulding Road. The third area follows Miss. 57 southwest, taking in Turner-Duvall Retirement Village and several homes adjacent to the highway. It takes in the 16th section property to encompass Greene County High School and the Jones County Junior College Greene County Center and the Greene County Vo-Tech on the west side of Vo-Tech Road. It also takes in Wildcat Corner convenience store and restaurant at the intersection of High School Road and Miss. 57. The final area extends the town limits across the Chickasawhay River out to the intersection with 4-lane Miss. 63. The annexed area will also include the property along both sides of Old Hwy. 57 to Annex Road and all the area between Annex Road and Miss. 63/57, including the elementary school and the residential area around it.
A map and full legal description of the new municipal boundaries is expected to be published in the Herald in the coming weeks.
Leakesville Mayor George Perkins testified in court that he understands the annexation plan is not perfect, but feels it addresses some of the immediate expansion needs for the town. Perkins said last week he was happy the judge had ruled in the matter and that he is looking forward to focusing on other issues related to the town and county’s future success.
It is not clear if any of the objectors in the case will file an appeal to the judge’s ruling.
By RUSSELL TURNER