Airport plaintiffs win extension on time to appeal

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 8, 2002

[11/08/02]The legal battle over Vicksburg’s share in two local airports isn’t over.

In the latest twist, attorneys for the 16 businessmen who sued the city to keep the Vicksburg Municipal Airport open have been granted an additional 15 days to seek a rehearing before the Supreme Court.

Separately, attorneys for the City of Vicksburg say that the 16 businessmen who have paid to run the airport since 1999 under a Warren County Circuit Court order have not paid rent on the city-owned property since February. They owe $1,000 per month plus a percentage of fuel sales, more than $8,000, said City Attorney Nancy Thomas.

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Two weeks ago, the state’s highest court ruled in favor of the city in all eight questions brought by the plaintiffs and attorneys for the city. With the plaintiffs’ motion for more time, the last date for them to ask justices to take a second look at the suit is Nov. 22.

Carroll Regan, chairman of the Vicksburg Tallulah Regional Airport board, said plans are to move forward with a new apron project at the facility in Mound regardless of the outcome of the Supreme Court case.

“It really doesn’t affect us one way or the other,” Regan said. “All our T-hangars are full, and we plan to build more.”

Although the operations at VTR are not directly affected by the lawsuits, the finances of both airports are at the heart of the litigation that began in 1998 following a 2-1 vote by the Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen to shut down the facility on U.S. 61 South.

Funding for the regional airport comes from Vicksburg, which is a one-fourth owner of VTR along with Warren County, Tallulah and Madison Parish, and is one of the controversial issues surrounding the debate.

Mayor Laurence Leyens, who said the city is obligated to fund VTR regardless of the Supreme Court decision, said he has not decided if he will support closing the municipal airport. That decision now falls on the current members of the city board, but an injunction issued by Warren County Circuit Judge Frank Vollor keeping the municipal airport open will remain until after the Supreme Court issues a mandate upholding its earlier decision.

That mandate will not be issued until after a decision regarding the rehearing has been made, Thomas said.

“As long as no one else wants to use that land, I don’t see any need to close the airport,” Leyens said.

Former Mayor Robert Walker and former South Ward Alderman Sam Habeeb voted to close the airport in favor of using the land for industrial development. At that time, all the sites on the harbor were full, and there was no room for expansion.

Today, spots have opened on the harbor after the closing of several local industries since 1998.

In all, six lawsuits have been filed by attorneys for both sides along with multiple appeals and cross appeals. In their Oct. 24 decision, Supreme Court justices ruled the mayor and aldermen were not “arbitrary nor capricious” in their vote to close the airport. The ruling also found that the lower court erred in finding that the city must create an airport authority in order to fund VTR.

Vicksburg discontinued funding of the Mound airport from the time the first lawsuit was filed until the authority was formed in 1999. Warren County also held funding for the airport to avoid being caught up in the suits, but also resumed funding after the authority was formed.

Warren County has never been part of the litigation.

Ken Harper, the attorney for the plaintiffs, did not return phone calls.