Mantachie board threatens litigation over town ordinance violation

By Adam Armour/The Itawamba County Times

The Mantachie Board of Aldermen may be pressing forward with litigation against a property owner in violation of one of the town’s ordinances.

During last week’s regular monthly meeting, the board voted unanimously for town attorney Greg Keenum to send an official letter to Mantachie resident Tina Harris threatening litigation if she fails to remove a chain link fence running along the property line of the former location of Playhouse Daycare and current home of Los Cabos Mexican Restaurant … property that she owns.

If she fails to respond to that letter within 10 days, Keenum is to begin the process of filing suit against her.

According to the board, the fence in question, which was erected mid-2012, violates the town’s guidelines for installing a fence between a commercial property and a residential property.

The board has sent three official letters to Harris requesting she take down the fence. Harris hasn’t responded to any of these letters.

“That’s what our ordinances are for,” Mantachie Mayor Jeff Butler told the board. “I don’t want to do this; we shouldn’t have to do this. But we’re going to have to force her hand.”

According to the board, Harris’ fence is in violation of Section 1303.04 of the town’s ordinances, which was adopted in 1997. Part three of the section states that a fence in a commercial zone that abuts a residential zone shall “be a minimum of six feet in height and shall be constructed of brick or solid (plank-to-plank) wood.”

Harris’ fence meets neither the stated height nor material requirements. Harris also failed to apply for a building permit before constructing the fence.

The Times attempted to contact Harris for comment, but was unable to reach her. In a previous newspaper article, Harris commented that, “When the entire town is in compliance, I’ll be in compliance.”

That’s actually an issue the board discussed: Whether or not it has the right to strong-arm one resident into compliance when there are other violations scattered throughout the town. Aldermen agreed that if they are going to truly enforce the town’s numerous ordinances, they need to do it consistently.

“You’ve got to treat everybody alike,” said alderman Timmy “Red” Spradlin.

It was a sentiment with which alderman Mike Horton agreed. He told the board that he knew of other ordinance violations that needed to be handled as well.

Butler said that, as various ordinance violations were brought to the board’s attention, they would be handled.

“As we hear about stuff that’s happening, we’ll deal with it,” he told the board.

As for Harris’ fence, the board implied the situation had reached its breaking point. Still, none among them was eager to jump into litigation over the issue.

“Is there no way to come to an agreement without a lawsuit,” alderman Tim Jones asked the board.

The mayor seemed adamant, suggesting that Harris had been completely uncooperative.

“She won’t even talk to us,” he told Jones, his voice rising. “What else can we do?”

Keenum said if the board didn’t see the issue through to its conclusion, it would lose its footing in all future battles over town ordinances.

“If you don’t enforce it this time, then you can’t enforce it next time,” he said. “We need to decide what we’re going to do. The next step is to file suit to compel her to [take the fence down] … It will create some unhappy folks, I’m sure. But it is what it is.”

For now, the cost to file the lawsuit is $125. Keenum told the board that if the matter made it to the courtroom, a judge would likely side with the town.

“It’s a tough call,” commented alderman Matt Fennell. “This will open some things up … [But] I don’t think we have a choice.”

Fennell motioned for Keenum to send Harris a final letter that stated they would begin litigation soon. Prior to a vote, however, Horton called for the board to enter into a private, executive session to discuss something pertaining to the issue. The board complied, rescinding the initial motion and voting to enter into executive session. The small crowd was ushered out of the board room.

Approximately five minutes later, the board exited its executive session and voted unanimously for Keenum to send a fourth letter to Harris threatening litigation if she fails to contact Keenum within 10 days.

“She doesn’t have to take the fence down within 10 days, just contact us,” Butler said. “Maybe it will be taken care of before this goes any further.”

As of Tuesday at press time, Harris still hadn’t responded to the board’s letter.

adam.armour@journalinc.com