HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The Mississippi legislature passed a bill that requires cities to include residents in annexation plans or forfeit control zoning and subdivision regulations to the county.
"The Mississippi House of Representatives passed the bill 78-40 with strong bipartisan support," Lamar County Rep. Brad Touchstone said. "The bill is now headed back to the Senate for concurrence, and hopefully to the governor's desk to be signed into law. The goal of this bill is not to encourage Hattiesburg to annex residential areas in Lamar County. Instead, the goal of this legislation is to require the city of Hattiesburg to comply with our county zoning regulations if and when it continues to annex commercial corridors in Lamar County. This law will give we the people a voice in the type of development that locates in our community."
Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree said being able to control the zoning of a property annexed is an essential part of city growth.
"The whole point of annexing is so that you would have control of zoning and planning and those kinds of things," DuPree said. "Liken it to I own a house, but I can't do anything in it without going and asking the next door neighbor, 'can I do that?' That's what this law says. If we have this property that we can't do anything with it without going and at least asking Lamar County 'can we do it?' first. That kind of flies in the face of home rule, and that's what cities are all about. It's about home rule. It is, I think, bad public policy, especially when we would probably do like we've done before in other annexations. We listen to the people we're going to annex, and if they don't want something to be there, we pretty much oblige them. If they do want something, we work hard to make sure that that happens."
Hattiesburg City Council President Kim Bradley said he thinks the bill is written specifically for Hattiesburg because it is written for cities that sit in two counties.
"I think those people in government and the Senate and the House that are out that way (live in Lamar County) are trying to do something to protect their area," Bradley said. "You know, I can understand that. I can get that. That's fine, but I believe this bill, in my opinion, doesn't make any sense. We could go out there and annex all of it and take 50 percent of the census block to get control of the zoning, but that's not something that the city of Hattiesburg needs to do."
DuPree agrees the bill targets Hattiesburg.
"This bill was written just for Hattiesburg," he said. "I mean, when you have a bill that says a city that Highway 49 intersects with Highway 11, that has a university, with 40,000, that's situated in two counties, well that's Hattiesburg. You can throw a dart, and you can hit it because that's Hattiesburg. Where else in Mississippi does that happen except here in Hattiesburg?"
Bradley said the bill does not change Hattiesburg's plans to grow west along Highway 98, and he said those plans still do not include taking in residents along with businesses.
"It's not a deterrent to us at all," he said. "We're still going to be able to have the business there to generate the sales tax. We're still going to provide the service as a city that we need to. Are we going to be able to have a direct say in what's built? No. Or how it's built? No, but the bill says that the governing county will defer to the city for ad vice and help. It does not in any way discourage us from our plan to grow to the north, to the west. When our day comes, we still want to sit down with the neighborhoods that we are out there to protect, not only to grow the commercial corridor, but to protect those areas, those neighborhoods."
DuPree agreed the city will continue with annexation plans, but said he cannot be sure the city will not take in residents.
"Well, I can't say that (we won't considering annexing residents)," DuPree said. "I don't know what we're going to do. We're seriously considering annexing. I mean, I think that was the purpose of them coming so quickly to do this because they realized that we were going to do this. At the same time, we're going to take a look at the area, and we'll look and see exactly what that entails. This legislation is making us annex people who maybe don't necessarily want to be in the city of Hattiesburg. That's not our intent. Our intent is to annex the retail corridor, so it's forcing us to annex people who moved out there for a reason. They don't want to be not only inside the city of Hattiesburg. They don't want to be in any city. They moved out there for that very purpose because basically what they want, they already receive. So we'll take a hard look at what we're actually going to do when we provide a resolution for annexation."
Bradley said he can understand why residents in some of Lamar County's large subdivisions would support this kind of legislation, but said the Hattiesburg could offer residents the same protections as the bill.
"If I lived in Lamar County, specifically in one of the subdivisions, like if I lived on Tidewater in Canebrake, I have friends that do, they were very upset and bothered when Walmart came and was going to set up shop next to them," Bradley said. "I believe that this can offer them the protection that they need. Whether it's the county or whether it's the city that's writing the ordinance and enforcing it to prevent what they don't want to happen and what the area doesn't need to happen."
Bradley said Hattiesburg did have some input on the amended version of the bill through its local legislators. One of the amendments Bradley said the city insisted on was a "three year repealer" instead of making the changes indefinite.
"In three years, the House and the Senate will take this bill back up again, and either it will be extended for another three years or it will die in three years," Bradley said. "I'm sure the city of Hattiesburg will be there trying to encourage the lawmakers not to re-up or to repeal it."
DuPree said, "Home rule for cities is the Bible. I mean, that's why you have a city. That's why cities incorporate. That's why cities, that's why we annex because you want to have home rule. Home rule means that this is your home, and this is what you rule. You don't necessarily need to go to the next door neighbor to ask them can you do x,y,z, but it's law now. At least for today."
Touchstone said the House has to dispense of a motion to reconsider and get Senate concurrence before the bill heads to the governor.