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”Project Santa Claus”
by Sara Palmer

Between 2014 and 2016, the City of Ridgeland, Mississippi attempted to have a Costco store built.

In Mid 2014, the Director of Community Development for the City - Alan Hart - sent several concept plans to a Costco representative in regards to building a Costco in Ridgeland, MS. The representative "determined that the Highland Colony Parkway site most aptly suited its requirements." The City was advised to hold all discussions regarding the negotiations in "strict confidence".

In an attempt to keep the negotiations hidden, "the City officials nicknamed the Costco project 'Project Santa Claus'". The Mayor of Ridgeland also denied any rumors regarding Costco being built in Ridgeland to the press as well as the public.

In July of 2015, "anti-Costco emails began to be sent to the Board of Aldermen." Both the Mayor of Ridgeland "and the Board of Aldermen continued to deny that a Costco was coming to Ridgeland." Later in the year, "the Appellants, residents of subdivisions near the proposed Costco site, filed a Complaint for Declaratory Judgement." They argued that the recent "zoning ordinance amendment should be declared invalid because it had been adopted without notice and for the specific purpose of benefiting a favored developer." In response, the City "revised and republished its notice and held another hearing to consider the same subject."

The hearing had a four-three vote to "adopt the new amended zoning ordinance." In response to the vote, the Appellants "appealed the adoption of the April 5, 2016, Ordinance on April 14th, 2016, in the Circuit Court of Madison County." Their main argument being "that the amendments constituted illegal rezoning or spot-zoning."

The circuit court believed that as "the applicant's site plan must be approved by the City before any land may be defined as a Large Master Planned Commercial Development (LMPCD)" that no rezoning had occurred. They also "found that the amendment could apply equally to seventeen different C-2 districts, not solely to the Costco site."

The Appellants appealed and raised two issues. The first being "whether the amendments to the Official Zoning Ordinance of the City of Ridgeland constitute de facto rezoning that required the City to show a substantial change in neighborhood character prior to rezoning." The second issue was "whether the amendments constitute impermissible spot zoning designed to benefit a single favored developer."

The Supreme Court had previously stated that "comprehensive zoning ordinances adopted by municipal authorities are well planned and designed to be permanent. Before property is reclassified from one zone to another, there must be proof either, (1) that there was a mistake in the original zoning or (2) the character of the neighborhood has changed to such an extent as to justify rezoning and that public need exists for rezoning."

A mistake in regards to zoning would be "a clerical or administrative error, such as a mistake of draftsmanship on the Official Zoning Map or incorrectly reflecting the Mayor/Board of Aldermen's decision in the minutes." The only other reason to rezone an area would be "that the character of the neighborhood has changed to such an extent as to justify reclassification, and that there is a public need for the re-zoning."

The Court found no merit in the City's argument that the amendments were purely textual amendments. It was decided that the City could not prove that there was not "a mistake in the original zoning or that a change in the character of the neighborhood occured that justified rezoning, and a public need existed for the rezoning." The reason for this was "because, almost immediately after adopting a new comprehensive zoning ordinance and map in 2014, the City sought to change the zoning of the proposed Costco site to allow numerous prohibited uses, and because those additional uses effectively transformed the proposed Costco site from a C-2 district to a C-3 district." As such, the Court found "that the City illegally rezoned the property at issue."

As for the second issue brought up by the Appellants, the Court found that because the City attempted to rezone the property after Costco chose it as a suitable location to build on. As such the Court found "that the zoning amendments [were] arbitrary, capricious, and unsupported by substantial evidence."

Due to the illegal zoning, the Supreme Court reversed the circuit court's decision and rendered judgment for the Appellants.

(Beard et al. v. City of Ridgeland et al. - NO. 2017-CC-00669-SCT)

Decision: April 2018
Published: April 2018



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