High court to decide Paw Paw

Published 12:03 pm Tuesday, August 10, 2010

JACKSON — How to apply Mississippi law governing road maintenance to apparent inconsistencies in Warren County’s road list will be weighed by a panel of three Mississippi Supreme Court justices in a case involving the county and two groups of landowners.

Other litigation related to the lingering private property dispute exposes Warren County to a potential verdict for millions of dollars.

At issue is whether three-fourths of Paw Paw Road, a gravel path off Mississippi 465, is public or private. The road is the lone access to separate parcels of hunting property owned by Issaquena and Warren Counties Land Company LLC and Paw Paw Island Land Company. The case was appealed to the state’s high court after Vicksburg-based Chancellor Vicki Roach Barnes ruled in 2008 the road is private, including a part beyond a locked gate.

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The separate case for damages in U.S. District Court in Jackson involving all three parties alleges wrongdoing by supervisors and is on hold pending the outcome of the appeal.

Generally, one group of landowners accuses supervisors and others of intervening and illegally using their powers of office to muscle in favor of the other group.

County officials have maintained throughout a litany of suits filed since 2003 involving the land that their involvement was spurred to enforce subdivision development and floodplain ordinances as they are required to do. Property records show structures have been built on the island and recently adopted flood maps designate much of northwest Warren County a special flood hazard zone.

Central to oral arguments Monday in the case, now under advisement by the court’s Presiding Justice George Carlson and associate justices Ann Lamar and David Chandler, was Barnes’ ruling, based a statute on the books since 2000, that the register of roads has priority over the map in case of conflicting information.

“This case is a cliche for why the Legislature created the County Government Reorganization Act of 1988,” said Jackson-based attorney Mark Herbert, representing IWCLC. The landmark legislation caused a sea change in county government in Mississippi, prompting a switch to the “unit system” where road maintenance priorities are determined without respect to individual supervisor district lines.

Herbert told the panel the evidence in the chancery case was “overwhelming” that a .13-mile portion of the road — deemed public in the chancery ruling based on the road register — stretched only from Mississippi 465 to a locked gate at a tree line past the mainline Mississippi River levee. The remaining .47-mile beyond the gate was shown on maps presented in court to be “not accepted or maintained by the county.”

Testimony in the lower court proceeding from several county officials, including Board President Richard George and District 1 Supervisor David McDonald, acknowledged the discrepancy. Supervisors had met earlier in the day to address property tax objections and weren’t present for the court proceedings in Jackson.

The glitch in recording what was public in 1988 and what remained public after 2000, when state lawmakers set deadlines and spelled out the register’s priority in times of confusion wasn’t denied by the supervisors’ attorney, Ken Rector, during his statements to justices. The law, which has a subarticle on legislative intent for the process to document and record existing roads, needs more work. At one point, Rector said upholding the chancery ruling would mean the county has “effectively deeded over” the land to the private interests.

“I’m saying (the law) is ambiguous and vague,” Rector said. “I don’t think the Legislature intended that to be a title opt.”

Vicksburg-based attorney Eugene Parker, representing PPILC, challenged the chancery court’s decision to deny the firm a prescriptive easement across 1,275 acres of land on the island. Informal agreements between the group and Anderson-Tully until its purchase from the timber processor in 2002 constituted “permissive” use of the road, according to the chancery ruling.

“Are you saying that (PPILC’s) use of the road is superior to (IWCLC’s) use of the road?” asked Associate Justice Chandler at one point.

“It was — but it didn’t have to be that way,” Parker said. “They didn’t come along until 2002.”

Legal wrangling between the owners over access to the property dates to 2003. The federal case, filed in 2007 by IWCLC, says county supervisors intervened in a way that violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

Vicksburg Mayor Paul Winfield was board attorney for county supervisors when the federal case was filed. He, along with all five supervisors from the 2004-2008 term, remains a defendant in the case. Rector took over the case following Winfield’s resignation from the appointed position to run for mayor in 2009. The initial federal case seeks damages of $1 million on each of seven counts.