HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Hattiesburg and Petal's annexation petitions appeared before a judge for the first time Wednesday.
Judge Robert Lancaster presided over the over the hearing in Forrest County Chancery Court where about a dozen attorneys introduced themselves, their clients and explained which case they were involved in, with some attorneys representing parties in both.
The courtroom was completely full with overflow spectators having to wait in the hall.
"There's a lot of folks involved," Attorney Chad Mask said, who is representing the citizens of Bellevue. "The reason there's a lot of people involved is because there's a lot of interest in the community. That says a lot about the residents and the property owners down here. That they care about their whether they're for the annexation or against the annexation or, in my client's case, wanting to incorporate as the new city of Bellevue. What matters is that they're all interested and tied into their community and actively involved, and you can't ask for anything more than that."
The big takeaway for Hattiesburg from Wednesday's hearing is the consolidation of identical annexation petitions it filed in both Forrest and Lamar counties.
"The city of Hattiesburg filed one in Forrest County and filed an identical complaint and a petition in Lamar County because the city of Hattiesburg occupies portions of Lamar County and portions of Forrest County," said John Scanlon, Hattiesburg's annexation attorney. "We simply did not want to risk the argument falling against us that we should have filed in one county when we should have filed in the other, and so out of an abundance of caution, the city of Hattiesburg filed identical petitions and identical complaints in both counties. We were simply asking the court to consolidate those two matters for judicial economy, and so everything is more streamlined. Today was the first hearing in the matter, of course, so it was the first opportunity Judge Lancaster had to consolidate them, and we're happy that he did consolidate those two cases."
Now that the cases are consolidated, attorney's representing Lamar County want the case heard there.
"Obviously Lamar County," said Tim Holleman, Lamar County's annexation attorney. "That's the largest part of the annexation where most of the objection is going to be heard, so obviously, we'd like to have it heard in Lamar County. We're not totally in favor of consolidation because it costs the citizens of Lamar County who have no interest in the annexation that's in the northern part of Hattiesburg, but that's the court's call."
Mask said his clients do not oppose the consolidation, but agrees the case should be heard in Lamar County.
"From our perspective, whether they're consolidated or not, it wasn't our motion," Mask said. "It was the city of Hattiesburg's. We just don't oppose it. It's not a big deal one way or another to us. What we care about is that the case is actually heard in Lamar County because that's where the property at issue is located out Highway 98. So it's in Lamar County in its entirety, and that's where these folks live."
Scanlon said, "For the time being, he's consolidated them in Forrest County. I believe there is some opposition that wishes that the cases be heard in Lamar County. Hattiesburg does not have an opposition to the cases being heard in Lamar County, but also doesn't have a preference and is going to defer to the court."
Attorneys expect Petal's annexation case to remain separate from Hattiesburg's case despite being in the same hearing Wednesday.
"It sounds like that case will not necessarily be consolidated with the city of Hattiesburg's case," Scanlon said. "Petal is asking for six areas that do not overlap with the three areas that Hattiesburg's asking for, so I think that there's so many separate issues of fact that it probably is better to have those separated. Particularly because there are some parties opposing Petal's that are not making an appearance in Hattiesburg's and vice versa."
Attorney Robin Roberts, who is representing the Rawls Springs Utility District in the Hattiesburg case and the Glendale Concerned Citizens Coalition in Petal's, agrees they will likely remain as separate cases.
"I don't think the final case will be heard in the same courtroom," Roberts said. "They're certainly going to be handled as distinct cases, but since we have a judge who's from Columbus and has to travel down here, it just makes sense logistically for certain matters to be heard together. But eventually, the cases will be tried separately, and, certainly, the legal issues in both of them, while somewhat similar, the factual issues will be handled separately."
Lancaster is allowing 120 days for discovery, which will end on Jan. 19, 2017. He is requiring attorneys to designate experts by the 40th day, defendants by the 50th day and to file any pretrial motions by the 100th day.
"It's a long process, although as annexation goes, that's a very quick process, which we applaud," Holleman said.
Scanlon said, "Getting it moving forward is certainly something I think everyone is interested in doing, including those opposing it. It sounds like the court is going to have a relatively quick discovery period, and it sounds like Judge Lancaster is doing a good job moving it along. city of Hattiesburg is certainly happy about that."
Lancaster rescheduled Wednesday's hearing for Jan. 27, 2017, for both Hattiesburg and Petal and anticipates being able to set trial dates at that hearing. He said Hattiesburg estimated its trial would take three weeks, and Petal estimated its trial would take six weeks.