Gravel Pit

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 3, 2010


McClure, expecting appeal, postpones zoning decision

By Billy Davis

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Circuit Court Judge Jimmy McClure said Wednesday he will rule September 15 on a proposed gravel mining operation in the Eureka community.

The two-week window gives McClure time to pen a court ruling that will likely be reviewed by the Mississippi Court of Appeals.

McClure, speaking from the bench in Sardis, noted that likelihood since at least two other zoning decisions have moved from a county board room to circuit court, then to the state court.

The circuit judge promised a “detailed, written decision,” after hearing 50 minutes of testimony from attorneys Pat Lancaster and Jay Westfaul.

Was 2-2 vote proper?

At issue is whether the Panola County Board of Supervisors should have reached a decision on the mining operation, which is being sought by Memphis Stone and Gravel Company.

When one supervisor recused himself, the remaining supervisors voted 2-2 last August to turn down the appeal. A second board vote, to allow the appeal, also tied 2-2.

The split decision meant supervisors upheld, by default, the decision of the land development commission. The commission had already voted to turn down Memphis Stone’s permit request.

“Our position is that no final decision has ever been made,” Lancaster, who represents the mining company, argued before the court.

Lancaster suggested that the Board of Supervisors – not the county land commission – has the final authority to rule on zoning issues, meaning the appeal to supervisors remains unsettled.  

“You can’t defer to the land commission,” he said, because it has “no governing authority.”

That argument is only half-true, however. Panola County’s zoning regulations stipulate that the land commission has the authority to rule on a special exception permit. Zoning changes that come before the land commission are sent to the Board of Supervisors as a recommendation. But a special exception permit, like the one sought by Memphis Stone, is decided by the commission.

Memphis Stone’s permit request moved to the Board of Supervisors only because it was appealed.  

Attorney Westfaul, representing a split Board of Supervisors, told the court he “was not here to advocate for or against the gravel pit.”

Instead, he told the court that supervisors had conducted a legal procedure that would stand up to legal examination.

Westfaul did not mention the land commission’s authority to vote on special exception permits.

Lancaster’s arguments varied, and they took up most of the allotted hour that McClure had devoted to the civil hearing. The attorney argued that the land commission should have considered six criteria – it named only three – that are used to consider the impact of issuing a special exception permit.

The attorney also questioned the credibility of a petition circulated by gravel pit opponents. Some addresses are listed as far away as Memphis, he said, and some writing is “strikingly similar” to other names listed on the petition.

A conflict of interest?

Lancaster also suggested that Supervisor Kelly Morris should have recused himself from the board vote.

The attorney alleged that Morris’s residential property was drilled by Memphis Stone, in search of gravel, and his home is located on the haul route. Both indicate a conflict of interest, he said.

Morris’s district includes the proposed gravel operation and he has been a vocal opponent of the plan in the last year. He also made the board motion last year to turn down the company’s appeal.

When Memphis Stone filed its circuit court appeal last year, the supervisor acknowledged to The Panolian that his land had been drilled. But he disputed the company’s allegation that he had “met with” the company to request exploration. The request happened by chance, he said, when he saw the company drilling on neighboring property.

Westfaul, responding to the conflict of interest claim, suggested that agreeing with Lancaster’s claim would represent a “major step” within the legal system. Morris’ role as an elected official gives him a right to have an opinion and state it publicly.

“He could seek office saying, ‘I will oppose that gravel pit,’” Westfaul said.

Westfaul also suggested that the land commission is not required to study and document all six factors before it reaches a decision.

“Not all the factors have to be met,” he said.

Neighbors organized

protest, hired attorney

Memphis Stone wants to move its present mining operation from Batesville to a 200-acre site along Eureka Road. The land is currently zoned agricultural and Memphis Stone needs the special exception permit to mine and wash gravel, and sell it at the site.  

Plans for the large-scale mining operation created a backlash in the rural community, where some residents organized to oppose it.

Some residents from an adjoining subdivision, Mossy Oak, are protesting the gravel mine. Other residents along Good Hope Road, the proposed haul route for gravel trucks, are also opposed to the plan.

Memphis Stone has promised to punish speeding truck drivers, and to pay for flashing warning signs and other safety equipment on Good Hope Road, and to alter operating hours to accommodate school bus traffic.  

Attorney excluded

Opponents of the gravel mine also hired an attorney early last year, and that attorney, John Lamar, has communicated their opposition to the land commission and the Board of Supervisors.

Lamar, of Senatobia, was excluded from Wednesday’s court hearing after a five-minute proceeding that kicked off the hearing.

Lamar had not filed court briefs prior to the hearing, which would have indicated he was working alongside Westfaul, McClure ruled.

Lancaster, on behalf of Memphis Stone, had filed an objection to Lamar’s belated notice that he was participating in the court hearing.  

“This is an eleventh hour attempt to participate,” Lancaster argued.

Lamar responded that he had not been informed of court filings and had learned about the hearing by “dumb luck.”

The Memphis Stone hearing had originally been scheduled for a Senatobia courtroom but was moved to Panola County, in part thanks to Lamar’s entry in the matter, court arguments revealed.

Lamar, while not participating, remained seated next to Westfaul and conferred with the fellow attorney during the hearing.