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In re Enlarging, Extending and Defining The Corporate Limits and Boundaries of The Town of Leakesville, Greene County

Supreme Court of Mississippi

October 24, 2019

IN THE MATTER OF THE ENLARGING, EXTENDING AND DEFINING THE CORPORATE LIMITS AND BOUNDARIES OF THE TOWN OF LEAKESVILLE, GREENE COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI, VONCILE HOLMES, OLLIE MAE CLAY, CHRISTINE HOLLOWAY, JIMMY WASHINGTON, CRYSTAL COLLINS, PINCHEY WOULLARD, JIMETRA HOLLOWAY, BRIGGETT PETERS, MARCIA TAYLOR, LATIANA JONES, GLENDA THOMAS, JACQUES SMITH, MARTIN RAY SMITH AND CLIFTON THOMAS
v.
TOWN OF LEAKESVILLE, MISSISSIPPI

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 02/16/2018

          GREENE COUNTY CHANCERY COURT HON. JAMES D. BELL JUDGE

          ATTORNEYS: J. CHADWICK MASK CLIFTON MICHAEL DECKER JACOB THOMAS EVANS STUTZMAN ROUNSAVILLE SMITH McNEAL

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANTS: CARROLL RHODES

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: J. CHADWICK MASK JACOB THOMAS EVANS STUTZMAN

          BEFORE KING, P.J., COLEMAN AND BEAM, JJ.

          KING, PRESIDING JUSTICE

         ¶1. The Town of Leakesville (Leakesville) is located in southeast Mississippi and is the county seat of Greene County. The mayor and board of aldermen of Leakesville adopted an ordinance extending and enlarging the boundaries of the town. The Greene County Chancery Court found Leakesville's annexation request to be reasonable and entered a decree approving the annexation ordinance. Ollie Mae Clay, Crystal Collins, Christine Holloway, Jimetra Holloway, Voncile Holmes, Latiana Jones, Briggett Peters, Jacques Smith, Martin Ray Smith, Marcia Taylor, Clifton Thomas, Glenda Thomas, Jimmy Washington, and Pinchey Woullard (the "Opponents") filed a notice of appeal. We find that the chancellor's approval of the annexation request was supported by the record. Therefore, we affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. When a municipality desires to enlarge its boundaries, the governing authorities must first pass an ordinance defining the proposed territory to be included. Miss. Code Ann. § 21-1-27 (Rev. 2015). On November 10, 2016, Leakesville's mayor and board of aldermen passed an ordinance seeking to annex two areas located in Greene County. Area 1 was located to the east of Leakesville, and Area 2 was located to the west. On November 22, 2016, Leakesville filed in the Chancery Court of Greene County a petition to enlarge its boundaries via annexation. A chancery judge set a hearing on the petition for February 7, 2017.Leakesville noticed the petition and hearing.

         ¶3. The Citizens for the Betterment of Leakesville Area and individual objector Rodney J. Courtney opposed the annexation and filed their answer and affirmative defenses in response. Because each of the Greene County chancellors recused, this Court appointed Special Judge James D. Bell.

         ¶4. On October 19, 2017, Leakesville entered into a stipulation with the some of the opponents, agreeing to remove three areas, designated the "Settlement Area," from its proposed annexation. In return, the settling opponents agreed to withdraw their Answer and Affirmative Defenses and Objections to Leakesville's annexation of the remaining areas. The remaining areas were designated Area 1A, Area 1B, Area 1C, and Area 2, the proposed annexation areas (the "PAA"). The remaining opponents continued to object to the annexation of the PAA. The matter proceeded to trial on November 6 and 7, 2017. Several individuals appeared without counsel to object to the annexation.

         ¶5. Excluding prison population, the combined PAA consisted of 320 residents.[1] No objection was heard to the annexation of Areas 1A and 1B.[2] Several people opposed the annexation of Areas 1C and Area 2.[3] Area 1C is located to the southwest of Leakesville and includes a nursing home, Greene County High School, Jones County Junior College, and Greene County Vocational Center. It also includes agricultural land and residences belonging to some of the objectors. Area 2 is located to the east of Leakesville and includes Leakesville Elementary School, residential areas, and potential commercial areas. A new Highway 57 - 63 bypass was constructed to the east of Leakesville, across the Chickasawhay River. Area 2 follows Highway 63 southeast of Leakesville.

         ¶6. Under Mississippi Code Section 21-1-33,

If the chancellor finds from the evidence presented at the hearing that the proposed enlargement or contraction is reasonable and is required by the public convenience and necessity and, in the event of an enlargement of a municipality, that reasonable public and municipal services will be rendered in the annexed territory within a reasonable time and that the governing authority of the municipality complied with the provisions of Section 21-1-27, the chancellor shall enter a decree approving, ratifying and confirming the proposed enlargement or contraction, and describing the boundaries of the municipality as altered.

Miss. Code Ann. § 21-1-33 (Rev. 2015). The municipal authorities have the burden to show that the proposed enlargement is reasonable. Id. The chancellor found that Leakesville had proved the petition for the enlargement of its boundaries to be reasonable and, on January 11, 2018, entered an order approving the annexation of the PAA. The chancellor's findings are discussed more thoroughly below.

         ¶7. The Opponents appeal the chancellor's decision and request that this Court reverse and remand this case to the trial court with instructions to make additional findings concerning the factors relevant to the twelve indicia of reasonableness and to redetermine the issue of reasonableness in light of all the substantial and credible evidence.

         ANALYSIS

         ¶8. This Court's standard of review is very limited in annexation matters. Coahoma County v. City of Clarksdale (In re City of Clarksdale), 267 So.3d 236, 241 (Miss. 2019) (citing City of Horn Lake v. City of Southaven (In re City of Southaven), 5 So.3d 375, 376 (Miss. 2009)). The review is limited to whether the annexation is reasonable. Id. A chancellor's decision will be reversed "only if it is manifestly wrong and not supported by substantial and credible evidence." In re City of Southaven, 5 So.3d at 376 (citing Town of Marion v. City of Meridian (In re City of Meridian), 992 So.2d 1113, 1116 (Miss. 2008)).

         ¶9. This Court has used twelve indicia of reasonableness to determine whether a proposed annexation is reasonable. In re City of Clarksdale, 267 So.3d at 241-42. These twelve factors are

(1) the municipality's need to expand, (2) whether the area sought to be annexed is reasonably within a path of growth of the city, (3) potential health hazards from sewage and waste disposal in the annexed areas, (4) the municipality's financial ability to make the improvements and furnish municipal services promised, (5) need for zoning and overall planning in the area, (6) need for municipal services in the area sought to be annexed, (7) whether there are natural barriers between the city and the proposed annexation area, (8) past performance and time element involved in the city's provision of services to its present residents, (9) economic or other impact of the annexation upon those who live in or own property in the proposed annexation area, (10) impact of the annexation upon the voting strength of protected minority groups, (11) whether the property owners and other inhabitants of the areas sought to be annexed have in the past, and in the foreseeable future unless annexed will, because of their reasonable proximity to the corporate limits of the municipality, enjoy economic and social benefits of the municipality without paying their fair share of taxes, and (12) any other factors that may suggest reasonableness.

Id. at 242 (quoting In re City of Meridian, 992 So.2d at 1116). The twelve factors are not separate, independent tests but are considered together to determine reasonableness under the totality of the circumstances. In re City of Southaven, 5 So.3d at 376-77.

         ¶10. The Opponents argue that the chancellor erred in his findings on seven of the twelve reasonableness factors and contend that the chancellor's findings in those areas were manifestly wrong and not supported by substantial and credible evidence. First, this Court considers Leakesville's need to expand.

         1. Need to Expand

         ¶11. In determining the reasonableness of a municipality's need to expand, this Court has considered many subfactors, including

(1) spillover development into the proposed annexation area; (2) the City's internal growth; (3) the City's population growth; (4) the City's need for development land; (5) the need for planning in the annexation area; (6) increased traffic counts; (7) the need to maintain and expand the City's tax base; (8) limitations due to geography and surrounding cities; (9) remaining vacant land within the municipality; (10) environmental influences; (11) the [C]ity's need to exercise control over the proposed annexation area; and (12) increased new building permit activity.

In re City of Clarksdale, 267 So.3d at 242-43 (quoting City of Jackson v. Byram Incorporators, 16 So.3d 662, 683-84 (Miss. 2009)). The chancellor found that the evidence overwhelmingly showed that Leakesville needed to expand. The Opponents maintain that the chancellor's findings on Leakesville's need to expand were manifestly wrong and without substantial evidence. After reviewing the evidence presented at trial on this factor, we disagree.

         (i) Spillover Development into the PAA

         ¶12. As previously stated, spillover development is a factor to be considered when determining the reasonableness of a municipality's need to expand. The chancellor found that significant spillover development had occurred close to Leakesville's borders and that the development likely would not have occurred without the essential goods and services found in Leakesville. The Opponents argue that the trial court's determination that spillover development had occurred close to Leakesville was faulty.

         ¶13. At trial, Arthur Michael Slaughter, an urban planning consultant and registered engineer with Slaughter & Associates, testified that spillover in the PAA supported annexation. Slaughter compiled a map that depicted single-family homes, mobile homes, commercial lots, schools, and churches in the PAA. He stated that spillover growth had occurred adjacent to and north of Leakesville, as well as to the east. The map showed spillover in Area 2, which included Leakesville Elementary School, Davis Hardware Building Supply, Street Racin' Haven, Southern Styles Salon, New Providence Baptist Church, Quad County Memorial Chapel, and New Covenant Ministries. Area 1A included residential development, Southland Floor Covering & Mini-Storage, Pure Station/Bernie's Pawn & Gun, the Greene County Industrial Park, and Southern Mississippi Correctional Institution. Area 1B included extensive residential development and New Hope Baptist Church. Lastly, spillover in Area 1C included Greene County High School, Jones County Junior College Greene County Center, Greene County Vo-Tech School, Turner-DuVall Retirement Village, First Assembly Church of God, and Wildcat Corner. The majority of spillover development occurred in Areas 1B and Area 2; however, all of the PAA had experienced development.

         ¶14. The Opponents contend that the trial court ignored evidence that much of the spillover development occurred in the Settlement Area that Leakesville agreed not to annex. Accordingly, the Opponents argue that the fact that Leakesville excluded spillover development from the annexation area is indicative that the town does not have a need to expand because of spillover development. This Court previously has rejected a similar argument. See Gousset v. City of Macon (In re City of Macon), 854 So.2d 1029, 1038 (Miss. 2003) ("Objectors argue that the 'cut out' area has not had spillover development. They argue that the 'cut out' area should be excluded from the annexation since it is not more in the path of growth than other areas excluded. These arguments are without merit. The vacant and undeveloped land in the 'cut out' area is needed for future development."). Thus, the fact that Leakesville agreed not to annex areas with spillover development does not negate the evidence presented that spillover development has occurred in the remaining PAA.

         (ii) Population

         ¶15. The chancellor found that, although Leakesville's population is aging and declining, significant development is occurring just outside the town. The Opponents take issue with the chancellor's finding that the town's population is declining and argue that this should be an impediment to annexation.

         ¶16. Slaughter testified that Leakesville's population was not growing like it should be, especially for a county seat. Since 1970, Leakesville's population has averaged around 1, 000 people. Between the years 2000 to 2010, Leakesville's population decreased by 128 people. However, Greene County itself has had population growth since 1970. In Greene County, the total population was approximately 8, 500 in 1970. In 2010, the total population increased to 14, 400.[4] He stated that the average age of Leakesville's population also is increasing. Leakesville produced an exhibit showing that in 1970, the median age of Leakesville was 26.6, while the median age of Greene County was 25.5. In 2010, the median age of Leakesville was 42.1, while the median age of Greene County was 35.7. The percentage of Leakesville's population age 65 and older was 20.2 percent in 2010. Conversely, the percentage of Greene County's population age 65 and older was 11.2 percent.

         ¶17. The Opponents argue that, although Leakesville's population is aging, Greene County's population also is aging and that the trial court overlooked the fact that the town sought to annex an area where the county's population is aging. The Opponents cite this Court's previous statement that the existence of no significant population growth and/or a relatively high percentage of undeveloped land within the existing town limits "should, at the very least, be an impediment to annexation." Bunch v. City of Jackson (In re City of Jackson), 691 So.2d 978, 981 (Miss. 1997). However, this Court has recognized that a "decrease in annual population growth, or even a 'decline' in overall population, does not necessarily weight against the city's 'need for expansion.'" City of Saltillo v. City of Tupelo (In re City of Tupelo), 94 So.3d 256, 273 (Miss. 2012) (quoting In re City of Meridian, 992 So.2d at 1117). As discussed in the following subfactor, the town of Leakesville consists of only 1.6 square miles of land and has a lack of developable land within the town limits. Consequently, Slaughter testified that the small size of Leakesville's town limits constrains the town's ability to grow in population.

         (iii) Need for Development Land

         ¶18. The chancellor found probative that Leakesville is the county seat of Greene County, yet its area covers only 1.6 square miles. The chancellor concluded that if Leakesville did not expand it would likely continue to decline to the detriment of the county and its inhabitants.

         ¶19. Slaughter testified that Leakesville certainly had a need for development land. He testified that, as the county seat, "you'd like to see the town of Leakesville be able to enjoy that type of growth and population growth and be able to survive and provide the needed services not only in the existing town but the Leakesville community as a whole through the annexation area." He pointed out that Leakesville has 1.6 square miles of land area, a small area for a municipality, while Greene County as a whole is 713 square miles. Slaughter stated that the PAA would allow Leakesville additional room for growth and consists of only 4.7 square miles. Mayor George Perkins also testified that Leakesville is "boxed in" and has nowhere to go.

         ¶20. In addition, Slaughter stated that some of the vacant land in Leakesville consisted of floodplains and floodways, further constraining the available room to grow. Areas to the east of Leakesville also consisted of floodplains and wetlands. Slaughter admitted that certain parts of the wetlands would not be conducive to development. Those wetlands indicated a constraint to development. However, Slaughter testified that Areas 1A, 1B, and 1C were, for the most part, outside of the floodplains.

         ¶21. Vernon Eugene Cooper objected to the annexation at trial and testified that he owned approximately 180 acres inside the PAA.[5] Cooper argued that Leakesville was not growing and testified that he had several commercial properties for sale in Leakesville that had not generated any interest. However, Mayor Perkins testified that some of the vacant buildings within the town limits are privately owned and stated that "[m]ost of them are affluent, some of them wealthy people, and they'll tell you right quick-like: 'That's my price on renting it. If it don't rent, I don't care.'" Moreover, this Court previously has approved annexation in cities with higher vacant land available "such as 'Southaven, Madison, and Ridgeland, which had usable vacant land of 43%, 59%, and 48%, respectively.'"Hale v. City of Clinton (In re City of Clinton), 955 So.2d 307, 315 (Miss. 2007) (quoting Lamar County v. City of Hattiesburg (In re City of Hattiesburg), 840 So.2d 69, 85 (Miss. 2003)).

         (iv)Need for Planning ...


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