High court backs ruling; Paw Paw mostly private

Published 12:04 pm Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Mississippi Supreme Court has upheld a 2008 ruling by Warren County Chancery Court that stated most of Paw Paw Road is private, possibly dealing a blow to Warren County’s chances of a favorable verdict in a related federal case involving two groups of landowners.

In a unanimous decision Wednesday, all nine justices affirmed Vicksburg-based Chancellor Vicki Roach Barnes’ conclusion that .13 of a mile of the gravel path off Mississippi 465 is public and the remaining .47 of a mile is 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.

Legal wrangling between the owners over access to the property dates to 2003. The mess grew in 2007 when IWCLC filed a civil racketeering suit against the county alleging county supervisors intervened in a way that violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act — which could expose the county to a multimillion-dollar verdict.

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The chancery ruling was based on discrepancies between maps adopted in 1989 and the register of roads in 2000 — the same year state law gave priority to the register in times of conflicting information. Register entries showed the distances spelled out in the ruling. IWCLC attorneys argued before a three-judge panel in August that distance only covers from Mississippi 465 to a locked gate at a tree line past the mainline Mississippi River levee. The county has argued its involvement merely stemmed from trying to enforce flood plain and subdivision ordinances beyond the gate, as required by law. 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.

Justices said the chancery ruling maintains the lone and most current method for creating a public road. Further, the decision renders baseless a claim made by the county during oral arguments that state law effectively took away its ownership of the road without the usual process of declaring it abandoned.

“The chancellor made no such ruling,” said the decision, written by Associate Justice Michael K. Randolph. “We find no error by the chancellor, either factually or legally, in finding that the road west of the gate is private and that the county never had title to the road.”

Claims by the county and PPILC that each should have a prescriptive easement were nixed by the state’s high court, which upheld the lower court’s finding that the group had informal, “permissive” use of the road from timber interests who previously owned property on the island.

The case before U.S. District Court in Jackson asks for $1 million in damages on each of six counts and is on hold pending outcome of the chancery appeal. No extra briefs have been filed in the case since September 2009, when U.S. District Judge David Bramlette signed an order allowing either party to restart the case.

All five Warren County supervisors from the 2004-2008 term are defendants, as is Vicksburg Mayor Paul Winfield, then the attorney for the board. Vicksburg attorney Ken Rector represented the county in the lower court cases and in the federal case. IWCLC’s attorneys are Mark Herbert and Lisa Reppeto, both of Jackson.