What, exactly, does Mississippi mean by ‘public use?’

Published 1:30 am Sunday, October 2, 2011

OXFORD — If our state were truly democratic, Jackson would be the size of a postage stamp. So would all other cities and towns in Mississippi.

Each started small. Each has grown through annexations. City expansions are rarely popular. If put to a vote, many would fail.

The very fact that there’s no such thing as an “annexation election” proves something obvious: Some laws are designed to bypass public opinion.

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On Nov. 8, one of the three proposed changes to the Mississippi Constitution on every voter’s ballot will, if it passes, trim the sails of state and local governments in the arena of eminent domain, a power very similar to annexation.

Today in Mississippi, when the governing board of a town wants to expand the city limits the hardest part is hiring a crew to accurately prepare a Metes and Bounds survey of the new boundaries.

The next step is a piece of cake. All it requires is a petition asking for a chancery judge’s stamp of approval of the new city limits. The law tells the judge to OK any reasonable request.

No notice is required. Testimony is optional. Opponents can show up and explain why they’re against an annexation, but odds are stacked against them.

The law is biased because it makes sense for cities to grow in reasonable increments. And it is in the public’s larger interest for cities to be able to expand and gain authority to provide utilities and fire and police protection to new neighborhoods on a city’s perimeter.

Eminent domain is similar. Mississippi laws say any entity with eminent domain powers needs only show a public need and a public use for the land they wish to buy and the owner or owners will be forced to sell. Jurors serve only one purpose — to set a fair price.

For a couple of centuries, as long as the role of government was more distinct from the private sector, this process worked well.

Private land was acquired for roads, airports, train tracks, levees and even flood reservoirs such as Ross Barnett, Enid, Arkabutla, Sardis and Grenada were created using eminent domain powers. Same for parks and preserves at the local, state and national levels.

Gradually, however, what had been a strict definition of public use and public need has morphed into a more general “public benefit.”

This transition has been the source of power for assorted public-private partnerships in Mississippi. They range from urban renewal efforts where dilapidated properties have been condemned by cities, purchased and resold to developers who pledge to fix them up to acquiring land for the Nissan plant on Interstate 55 south of Canton.

It was the so-called Kelo case that pushed the envelope too far for some. The administrators of a Connecticut town, New London, proposed to force the transfer of private land from one owner to another private, hoping for more development, higher taxes and other public benefits. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 this was OK, that it fit the constitutional definition of “public use.”

Almost every state reacted, more narrowly defining what their laws meant by “public use.” Here, a citizen initiative, signed by then Farm Bureau President David Wade, has led to the question on ballots a month from now.

Specifically, Initiative 31 would “prohibit state and local government from taking private property and then conveying it to other persons or private businesses for a period of 10 years after acquisition. Exceptions from the prohibition include drainage and levee facilities, roads, bridges, ports, airports, common carriers and utilities. The prohibition would not apply in certain situations, including public nuisance, structures unfit for human habitation, or abandoned property.”

Mississippi Development Authority leader Leland Speed opposes the initiative, saying, generally, that sufficient safeguards have already been added to Mississippi law and that Initiative 31 will kill the private investment the state desperately needs.

It’s not an easy question. It’s not as simple as “more jobs” vs. “private property rights” as some would have us believe. And it’s not either-or.

It’s a matter of where Mississippi will draw the line on eminent domain powers. Mississippians, who will bear the consequences of laws if they are too broad or too restrictive, are, correctly, in the driver’s seat.

Some serious thinking should take place before we cast our ballots.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail cmitchell43@yahoo.com.