The Mississippi Supreme Court has affirmed in favor of a chancery judge’s 2019 ruling that denied the majority of a proposed annexation by the City of Petal.
The ruling, which was handed down Sept. 10, found that Special Chancellor Robert L. Lancaster was correct when he denied the annexation, based mainly on the notion that Petal did not have the resources to properly maintain all the land city officials were pursuing. Justices Michael Randolph, James Kitchens, Leslie King, Josiah Coleman, Dawn Beam, Robert Chamberlin, David Ishee and T. Kenneth Griffis concurred.
“The chancellor’s finding are supported by substantial and credible evidence, and this court affirms his decision,” the ruling states.
The annexation attempt began in 2016, when Petal sought to obtain six tracts of land in Forrest County. Those areas included:
- Land along the Evelyn Gandy Parkway stretching from Petal northwest past Interstate 59 (Area 1);
- Industrial land north of Petal along U.S. 11 (Area 2);
- A city road that ends in a county cul-de-sac (Area 3);
- Land along Mississippi 42 running from Petal east to the county line (Area 4);
- Land southeast of Petal where parcels or lots were split between the city and county line (Area 5); and
- Land south of Petal extending south past Sunrise Road (Area 6).
A trial on the matter began in December 2018 and lasted six days, during which time Lancaster heard numerous lay and expert witnesses, 139 exhibits and personal site inspections. Several individuals and groups showed up to voice their dissent to annexation, including representatives from Lone Star NGL Hattiesburg, Gulf South Pipeline Company and Enterprise Products Operating.
Officials from the city argued that Petal would be able to adequately provide service to all of the areas, comparing county services against the city’s and saying municipal services would better serve residents.
Lancaster approved the annexation of Areas 3 and 5 to correct a mistake in the city’s previous 2003 annexation, when several parcels or tracts of land were erroneously split between Petal and Forrest County. However, he denied the rest of the request, saying the city should bolster the assets it already has, rather than trying to take on new property.
“A footnote in Judge Lancaster’s opinion provides an excellent summary,” the Supreme Court’s decision states. “As he put it, ‘the city expressly avoided annexing existing subdivision near the city because rooftops do not pave their way.’
“This annexation seeks to take primarily undeveloped lands from which to create a tax base in Areas 4 and 6 and to take Area 2 for an existing tax base. And in his denial of Area 2, he further stated, ‘the only possible need for the city to annex Area 2 is to increase the amount of taxes it can collect … and the city has shown no realistic and existing need for such and immediate large increase in taxes.’”
After Lancaster’s denial of the majority of the annexation, the city appealed the matter to the Supreme Court.
Mayor Hal Marx said he isn’t surprised by the Supreme Court’s decision, because when an entity makes an appeal the odds are most likely against them.
“More than likely, the appeals court will rule in favor of what the lower court’s ruling was, which is how it works in most cases,” he said. “But we thought we needed to at least take the opportunity to appeal, since we’d already put so much time and money into making our case for annexation – we thought it’d be worth it.
“We’re disappointed, but I’m not surprised; I expected they probably would rule the way they did. I disagree with it, and I disagree with the lower court’s ruling, and I wish the Supreme Court would have looked a little closer at our evidence that we put in. I think they went by what the judge had previously written in his decision, and that’s sort of what appeals courts do.”