Jackson Lake Plans and Eminent Domain | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Jackson Lake Plans and Eminent Domain

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John McGowan, Pearl River Vision Foundation founder, is promoting a one-lake development.

Jackson Realtor Bob Ridgway is president of a 100-year-old exclusive hunting and fishing spot about a half mile from where County Line Road dead ends at Old Canton Road. Mule Jail Club has an eight-person membership that goes back to the 1880s, and a number of small cabins sit on pylons either within the water or on ground that is partially or totally submerged during a portion of the year. Biologists describe the territory as some of the most pristine wetland between Hinds and Rankin counties. Nevertheless, Mule Jail could lose a considerable portion of itself to lake water, just as it sacrificed a portion of itself to the making of the Ross Barnett Reservoir.

Oil man John McGowan's "Two Lakes" plan would flood the section of the Pearl River between Spillway and Interstate 20, including a portion of Ridgway's land. The project, which Rankin-Hinds Pearl River Flood and Drainage Control District is mulling, involves using underwater dams to create two lakes that will presumably cover 4,133 acres. McGowan told the Jackson Free Press that his endeavor will require 12,000 total acres, and he admits that getting all that land isn't as easy as wheeling a barrel full of hundred dollar bills up to landowners' front porches.

"We're going to have to (take) all that land, say $60 million or $70 million worth. It'll wind up being a government project, because I just couldn't get all those landowners to come together," McGowan told the JFP in May, referring to about 90 different property owners whose real estate runs the risk of being either inundated, or the new location of expensive lakeside property.

McGowan initially approached landowners with offers to buy their land or trade their land for comparatively valuable land in other spots unaffected by the inundation. He said only "three or four" landowners were willing to commit to a non-binding agreement on the land trade, however.

"Now we're certain (we'll) be condemning it all, same as eminent domain," McGowan said, adding, "you'll never have a project like this without eminent domain."

Some property owners would like to remain noncommittal about the impact the new lake will have upon their property.

Ridgway speaks wistfully of his forebears spending a whole day traveling by horseback over gravel and dirt roads from Robinson Street in south Jackson to their far-flung swamp property up north. Ridgway ties himself into knots defending both McGowan's Two Lakes plan and Mule Jail.

"We have fine cabins down there now. It's gorgeous. It's the place to go. We enjoy it and have enjoyed it forever," said Ridgway of Mule Jail immediately before defending McGowan's desire to drown it.

"John is a good guy and a great salesman, and a good friend. The things he proposes are very valid," he said. "I remember watching my brother row a refrigerator out of my mother's house during the 1979 Easter flood. There's a lot of flooding taking place, but everybody hides their head. You can either take all the houses out of the floodplain, or do something with levies, which restrict the flow to the point where you can't even see the river, or you do what John's doing, which makes a feature out of it. I love the woods, but at the same time, we can't preserve everything."

Ridgway speaks of the benefit of the new lake, but can't stop himself from verbally relishing Mule Jail, which will lose 150 acres to the encroaching lake under the current Two Lakes plan: "I, as president of Mule Jail, am neutral. As a landowner on Lakeland Drive, we're in favor of the lake plan. As a property owner at Mule Jail, I probably feel you could take that lake and go somewhere else with it," he says. "John understands where we're coming from, and we're remaining silent, as Mule Jail."

Ridgway, who works in real estate, said eminent domain won't be a problem because state laws, in his opinion, still heavily favor land-owners.

"The only way John could get eminent-domain rights is through the government, and those have to be proven in court. The only way they could take it is if the court sees that it's for the common good. It's not just some fly-by-night lawyer or a judge in some county somewhere. We're talking Supreme Court stuff. Anybody who is intimidated by eminent domain doesn't understand it. Nobody is going to get trampled."

Jackson resident Jack Westbrook is not nearly as undecided as Ridgway.

"The project would effectively make me sell my home and turn it over to a development," Westbrook said. "If I choose not to participate, I'll be eminent domained, but if I play along, I still lose because I couldn't afford to keep it."

Westbrook's land has been in his family for generations. Westbrook Manufacturing, established in 1906 on Jefferson Street, was one of the first of eight businesses, including Ironworks, who essentially built the city. "We put in pretty much every kitchen and restaurant in the city," Westbrook said.

The retired landowner actually stands to lose only two acres to the encroaching water, which would still leave him with about 30 dry acres of land. But Westbrook says he won't be able to afford the new taxes resulting from the manufacturing of the artificial lakes.

McGowan estimates a total project cost of $336 million. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has committed $133 million to a "locally preferred" plan that survives the federal vetting process, leaving a potential $203 million hole. McGowan can expect to get another $50 million from the state in the form of an in-lieu payment and fiscal incentives from the Mississippi Development Authority, leaving a $153 million hole that the levee district intends to fill with a 
$75 million direct tax increase and $78 million in debt service, through the sale of general obligation bonds to a group of banks.

If the average percentage attached to TIFF bonds is 5 percent, then it would presumably take $80,000 per year to finance debt service for $1 million. Calculations for 153 of those $80,000 per year packets suggests Hinds and Rankin counties will need to come up with $12 million a year to handle the new debt.

Levee board members like Richland Mayor Mark Scarborough said people working for the board have quoted property-tax increases of about 20 mills, sending him into a panic. One mill equals $1 tax on a property with an assessed value of $1000.

McGowan argues that the entire populace of the counties will not have to shoulder the weight of the taxes, however, that local residents like Westbrook—who live directly in the flood zones and who benefit from the flood control offered by the Two Lakes project—will happily carry the costs.

"They'll accept a tax increase because they will be able to offset that tax increase with lower insurance rates," McGowan argued.

Former Mississippi Development Authority Executive Director Leland Speed said property owners deriving benefit from the lake should rightfully bear the burden: "If your property was flooding before, and it won't flood now, ... those people are going to get a serious increase in taxes. They deserve it, because they're being rescued from flooding. Their insurance is going down," Speed said in May.

But Westbrook, who says his pylon-mounted house even shook off the historic disaster of the 1979 Easter flood without taking on water, would no longer be able to afford his home. His portion of McGowan's $153 million baby would ultimately accomplish what the floodwaters never could.

"I'd have to move. There's no way around it," he said. "The choice that I will have is to either pay the increased taxes and the bond service debt, which could be absurd, around $20,000 a year, or leave. I flew for Delta for many years, and had to take a medical retirement. My income is such that I can't take a 20-grand increase after taxes. Those insurance decreases they keep talking about won't even matter."

Westbrook owns only a small portion of property. His nearest neighbors, including Billy Mounger Jr., have plenty more to lose—about $1 million in property-tax increases by Westbrook's calculations. Mounger's relatives have been buying up property along the Pearl River, in Jackson, including lots owned by "Cypress Tree, LLC," a company for which Callie B. Mounger and William Mounger Jr. serve as directors. The Mounger family, like McGowan—who also owns considerable potential lakeside real estate along the Pearl River—could be looking to avoid tax increases by selling the newly enriched land to developers at top price.

Mounger could not be reached for comment.

But Westbrook, unlike his more affluent neighbors, has only rebuilt his home after a fire less than two years ago, and had planned to die there: "John (McGowan) said he would be unlocking the value of my property, but the value he's referring to is real estate development value. If the project goes through, I'd have to move on," Westbrook said. "If I'd wanted to live on a reservoir and pay reservoir prices I would have moved to the (Ross Barnett) Reservoir."

See complete JFP coverage of the Pearl River Flood Control Controversy

Previous Comments

ID
149634
Comment

Where's Hinds going to come up with that cash? If you raise taxes now, people are going to abandon Hinds/Rankin like they did Jackson in the 80's. Call it "Tax Flight".

Author
Ironghost
Date
2009-07-15T09:05:05-06:00
ID
149635
Comment

Iornghost, I may be wrong, but I don't think it was taxes exclusively that ran people out of Jackson. My question is, if it's purely about flooding aren't there less expensive ways to handle it?

Author
dd39203
Date
2009-07-15T10:48:42-06:00
ID
149637
Comment

If I were a land owner opposed to this folly, my new best friend would now be the Sierra Club, http://www.sierraclub.org/ . Quoting from their web site, "The Club is America's oldest, largest, and most influential grassroots environmental organization. Inspired by nature, we are 1.3 million of your friends and neighbors, working together to protect our communities and the planet." I feel certain this would not be the first time they have come across a development project dressed up as "flood control". The key phrase in this article is "wetlands". They are very good at protecting wetlands.

Author
Jeffery R
Date
2009-07-15T11:29:36-06:00
ID
149641
Comment

dd, see complete JFP coverage of the Pearl River Flood Control Controversy here.

Author
Ronni_Mott
Date
2009-07-15T15:23:55-06:00

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