Jackson State University tried to accelerate the eminent-domain process with a bill tailored to its needs in the Legislature, but the bill died in committee this week.
JSU wants to build a 50-acre mixed-use University Park of Jackson development on Dalton and Lynch streets, with a combined cost of more than $33 million, and $21 million in housing on Terry Road. To help the projects, JSU plans to tear down the abandoned Sylvester Hosey's Pearl Street Convenience Store on the pristine Jackson Metro Parkway. But Hosey isn't ready to sell the land to JSU.
The university also wants to turn the site of Sadie Green's Cleary Street house into a mixed-use area containing middle-to-moderate income dwellings and some retail, but Green isn't hearing it.
"I've tried to talk to the owners myself. They won't take my calls," said JSU President Ronald Mason Jr. in an interview.
Mason said JSU is willing to pay more than twice the assessed value of the homeowners' property, which the school offered for Green's property, along with offers to help in relocation efforts.
"We'll pay a negotiated price that helps people to move comfortably and we've done it, so we know we stand on our record," Mason said. "... We'll help them find a house, and we'll help them find a safe and decent apartment, if they're renters, and we'll help them with rental payments and relocations."
Brigeet Olugbala, chairwoman of the homeowner's advocate group Mississippi Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as ACORN, said $30,000 isn't enough to offset the transition of a senior citizen with a fixed income.
"Many of these people are retirees who have paid off their mortgages a long time ago, who couldn't possibly afford to adopt a new mortgage. Can you imagine your grandmother, who has not been paying a mortgage in years, suddenly getting saddled with a new mortgage at her age, or worse, getting saddled with rental payments? It's too much of a transition," Olugbala said.
Accusing some homeowners of holding the project for ransom, Mason said he and the Jackson Redevelopment Authority convinced Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant to push Senate Bill 2896, which put the eminent-domain process on steroids. In fact, Mason refers to the bill as "quick take" legislation.
Sonya Murphy, head organizer of Mississippi ACORN. called SB 2896 an unconstitutional land grab, and praised the death of the bill.
"Eminent domain gives people time to prepare a case to negotiate, whereas quick-take allows them to send out a statutory notice saying, 'We have taken possession of your land, and you have a certain number of days to vacate.' It does not give the homeowner enough time to prepare a defense."
Murphy said ACORN urged the Jackson City Council to oppose the language of two bills tailored directly for the JSU issue in that they give new eminent-domain powers to the county Board of Supervisors or the governing authorities of a municipality "wherein is located a state-supported institution of higher learning and whose population is (between) 100,000 or 200,000, or (contains) … a redevelopment authority." Both bills allowed for the "immediate possession" of private property within a three-mile radius of the designated redevelopment area for the purpose of assisting the development of "work force housing, student housing, academic facilities, community service facilities, retail facilities and related improvements and purposes."
Members of neighboring Washington Addition community said they feared the bill would have allowed "quick take" to apply to their property as well, though Mason said JSU is only interested in a fraction of the property outlined in SB 2896 and HB 911.
The Legislature is suffering an identity crisis regarding eminent domain this year. After the state's eminent-domain debacles in 2001 trying to take land for the Nissan plant in Canton, the House recently passed HB 591, which restricts eminent domain to direct public use and allows no land-grabbing for use by a private corporation. The bill spells out that "the right of eminent-domain shall not be exercised for the purposes of converting privately owned real property for retail, office, commercial, industrial or residential development; or for enhancement of tax revenue; or for transfer to a person, nongovernmental entity, public-private partnership, corporation or other business entity."