Disputed county land private, not public, court rules|Appeal expected, county attorney says

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The claim by Warren County supervisors that they were neutral when they entered a dispute between two landowner groups has been dealt a setback by a Warren County Chancery Court ruling that a strip of property is private, not public land.

“It’s a bad ruling,” board attorney Paul Winfield said Monday, adding later that the ruling puts the case “back at square one” and an appeal was a near-certainty.

The decision by Chancellor Vicki Roach Barnes is one component in the ongoing legal fight over the timber and hunting property off Mississippi 465. The looming issue is a broad federal case filed in federal court in 2007. In it, supervisors, Winfield and others are accused of improperly using their powers to favor one group of owners over the other. It exposes the county to a judgment of millions of dollars.

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Citing state law regarding county maintenance of roads, Barnes deemed a .13-mile portion of Paw Paw Road to be public and the remaining .47 miles to be private — denying the county’s claim that the whole road was public, including the longer portion beyond the point where a gate along the gravel path has long blocked access.

Supervisors reacted with confusion, along with Winfield, when reading the order.

Paw Paw Island Land Company initiated the suit in 2003 against Issaquena Warren Counties Land Company — the county was not a party — over access to property on which both had claimed rights of entry. In 2005, IWCLC amended its complaint to add the county, arguing the county had favored PPILC by attempting to enforce subdivision and floodplain rules on improved lots on IWCLC property. That led to a circuit court injunction allowing the county to inspect the group’s land, an order reversed by the Mississippi Supreme Court in January and under separate appeal.

Supervisors are charged with enforcement of laws requiring all new construction in flood areas to be above normal flood levels. They also have adopted a subdivision ordinance requiring that road and drainage plans and specifications be submitted in advance for inspection and approval by county engineers.

District 5 Supervisor Richard George has said the county entered the dispute only to be evenhanded, not to favor PPILC owners, most of whom are local residents. Owners of IWCLC, most of whom are nonresidents and who allocated areas for owners to build lodges or homes, called the county’s action intimidation and in federal court allege violations under the Racketeering and Corrupt Influences Act. Each count of the federal case seeks $1 million in damages.

Barnes’ ruling seized upon a discrepancy between the county road register, or list of roads to be maintained, and the county road map illustrating where county maintenance is to begin and end. Lists presented in court showed the road was 6/10 of a mile long and public, while maps showed portions of the road beyond the gate to be “not accepted or maintained by the county.”

Testimony from multiple county officials, including George, acknowledged the discrepancy. By statute, the register has priority over the map in case of a conflict in information, Barnes wrote.

Two additional motions in the case were denied by Barnes, included PPILC’s request to have recognized a prescriptive easement running across the 1,275-acre tract of land. The judge termed the nature of its members’ use of the road as “permissive” through informal agreements with Anderson-Tully, from whom IWCLC purchased its acreage in 2002. Another was a motion by the county to recoup $7,200 in legal fees paid to its Winfield and unspecified fees paid to its engineer, John McKee. That ruling means Warren County must pay the expenses.

Resolution of the chancery court case had been awaited by those involved in the federal case, currently in a discovery phase with no hearing expected until September 2009.

In March, U.S. District Judge David Bramlette denied motions to dismiss the case, in which Winfield, the county’s contract surveyor Joe Strickland, County Prosecutor Richard Johnson and the entire county board from the last administration are defendants, and ruled IWCLC’s complaints had enough merit to allow the group to pursue the RICO angle.   

Reached Monday, attorney Ken Rector, representing the county in the federal case, said he was unprepared to speculate how the chancery ruling will affect the outcome of the case pending in the federal system before Gulfport-based Chief Magistrate Judge John Roper.

County agenda

Meeting Monday, the Warren County Board of Supervisors: Took under advisement two bids for contracts to provide food for inmates in Warren County Jail. One, from the current provider, Baton Rouge-based ABL Management, was for $1.27 per meal. The other, from Jackson-based Valley Services Inc., was for $1.41 per meal. Authorized advertising state aid-funded projects along Eagle Lake Shore and Tucker roads and the 2008 Natural Resources Conservation Service projects Approved a $2,425 subcontractor request by APAC Mississippi on the Adams Street bridge replacement project. Approved advertisements for Waste Tire Collection Day and White Goods Day, both set for Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Bovina Volunteer Fire Department. Approved a final plat for CDGP Properties LLC, planners of a minor subdivision off Fonsylvania Road. Accepted a letter of credit from planners of Choctaw Boundary, a subdivision off Duncan Road. Approved the qualifying petition of Patricia Smith for District 1 election commissioner. Adopted the fourth Monday in September as Family Day, in accordance with the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. Approved a check of up to $1,000 to Eugene Parker for appraisal work related to the defunct Inn of Vicksburg. Approved a request by the Vicksburg Warren School District to improve a bus turnaround in the 80000 block of Mississippi 3.