Judge takes rezoning lawsuit to a higher court

By Patsy R. Brumfield and Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – When the Mississippi Court of Appeals considers Case No. 1733 on Sept. 14, its judges will be looking at another judge making the appeal.
In April 2008, the Tupelo City Council approved a rezoning request by Wilson Coleman to change the status of about 45 acres from Residential to Planned Unit Development. The 45 acres is near Endville Road in the Belden area. Gardner has property adjoining it.
Thomas J. Gardner III, a longtime circuit judge in District 1, personally took exception with the change made in the looming shadow of Toyota’s plant development near Blue Springs.
He said he was not convinced that the development would not substantially change the character of his neighborhood or that a public need existed for it.
Gardner took his objections to familiar territory – the Circuit Court of Lee County – but special judge Billy Bridges of Rankin County failed to agree with his arguments.
Now, Gardner and his attorney, Shane McLaughlin of Tupelo, take his appeal up the legal ladder.
Defendants in the case are the city, the former mayor and members of the City Council two years ago, as well as Coleman.
Gardner contends the rezoning decision changes a large rural lot within the city to “a dense suburban environment.”
“There is no evidence of a present public need for the rezoning decision in this case,” his appeal brief states.
And thus, he’s asking to reverse Bridge’s circuit court decision.
But the city has spent the past several years lamenting its lack of available, developable land and saying it must build more housing to grow.
To date, Tupelo has 6,200 acres of suitable land for development – about 18 percent of the city’s total acreage. And at the time of Coleman’s proposal, it was quickly being converted into housing. Tupelo planning officials said they feared they were running out of space.
“We saw a need to maximize the number of units on the available land,” said City Planner Pat Falkner. “And at the time it was approved, we were not in a housing recession and we had had the Toyota announcement.
“I don’t think the need has changed, but it was more acutely perceived then.”
Toyota’s anticipated plant near Blue Springs was considered in Tupelo’s new comprehensive plan. The plan, called Tupelo 2025, envisions major population growth and a continued need for development.
All these factors eventually triggered Tupelo’s recent bid for annexation, which it won through a 2010 case in the Lee County Chancery Court.
It’s now on appeal at the state Supreme Court. If it wins, it will add roughly 16 square miles to the city.
But planning officials still support their decision to convert the area near Gardner’s property into a planned unit development.
patsy.brumfield@journalinc.com emily.lecoz@journalinc.com