CostcoBy ANTHONY WARREN,
Opposition alleges aldermen had conflicts when voting
The legal battle over the Ridgeland Costco gas station could come down to whether two Ridgeland aldermen had a conflict when voting to approve it.
Costco opponents are asking the Madison County Circuit Court to overturn the city’s decision to allow Costco to build a gas station on Highland Colony Parkway, across from the store’s proposed site.
They say the decision should be made null and void because Aldermen Chuck Gautier and Wes Hamlin had conflicts of interest in the matter and shouldn’t have been allowed to vote.
Those aldermen say nothing could be further from the truth and that any potential conflicts were vetted by the Mississippi Ethics Commission prior to the gas station vote.
“We are asking the court to rule that they should have recused themselves and that their votes on the issue do not count,” said attorney Steve Maloney, who represents the opponents. “This would effectively change the outcome of the vote.”
Earlier this year, the board voted 4-3 to approve site plans for the gas station, which will be located on a nine-acre site on the parkway south of the Old Agency Road roundabout. Both Hamlin and Gautier voted in favor.
The briefings argue that because of their associations with two entities that would benefit from Costco, the two should have recused themselves.
The appellants also argue that the city illegally blocked a developer’s request to build a storage facility on the site, specifically so Costco could build a remote gas station there.
According to documents, Gautier is a real estate agent that represents the Kerioth Corporation, that supported the initial Costco efforts. Kerioth owns the Township, a mixed-use development located north of the Costco site.
In March 2016, Kerioth President Clint Herring wrote a letter to the mayor and board stating “his desire to see zoning changed to allow Costco to come to Highland Colony Parkway. Mr. Herring even stated, ‘this could will encourage and help facilitate responsible development,’” according to the briefs.
That year, the mayor and board approved amending its C-2 zoning classification to allow Costco to come to the parkway as part of a large, master planned development.
The decision was struck down this year by the Mississippi Supreme Court.
“Kerioth is a client. If Clint Herring has an opinion, it doesn’t mean that it’s mine,” Gautier said.
According to court records, Hamlin was asked to recuse himself from the gas station vote in June 2018, because of his connections with Christ Life Church of the Highlands.
The church is located at 670 Highland Colony, adjacent to the Costco site. Hamlin and his wife are listed as team member on the church’s Web site.
Opponents argue that the church’s property values have skyrocketed as a result of the Costco votes.
Christ Life … owns property directly in front of the church, which is presently growing green grass. The church is no doubt waiting for the prefect time to sell this parcel,” the briefs state. “There has already been significant talk about rezoning the “green grass” property directly adjacent to Highland Colony Parkway to allow commercial development.”
Previously, the city paid Christ Life nearly $657,000 for a quarter-acre parcel, which was needed for the Lake Harbour Drive extension project. The amount was four times the property’s value, according to briefs.
“People in the suit are trying to do anything and everything they can to stop the Costco. This is another thing they’re doing,” Hamlin said. “It’s totally erroneous and frankly wrong.”
Hamlin said he does not work for the church and has not served as youth pastor, and that he doesn’t benefit financially from the city’s purchase of right-of-way.
“I’m not youth pastor at all. I don’t know where they’re getting that from.”
Hamlin and Gautier further argue that they were cleared to vote in the gas station case by the Mississippi Ethics Commission.
“When they first sent a letter saying we couldn’t vote on it, I contacted the Ethics Commission and (they) said there was not a conflict at all,” he said.
The two were contacted by concerned citizens in June, shortly before the June 19 gas station vote. City Attorney Jerry Mills contacted the Ethics Commission on their behalf, who said there were no conflicts.
Maloney was aware that Mills had contacted the Ethics Commission but was unaware that any formal investigation had been launched.
The appeal was filed by Gerald Beard, Charles Michel, Nils Mungan, Harold Joseph Byrd, George Shepard Jr. and William Aden.
According to court records, in December 2017, Storage Park Properties filed an application with the city to build a StorageMax facility on C-3 property located across from the proposed Costco site.
Records indicate that at the time, city officials gave no indication that they were opposed to the plans. However, in February, the board of aldermen adopted a moratorium on the construction of new storage facilities, and in early April, narrowly approved amendments to its C-3 zoning classification to prevent the structures.
Following the decision, the developer withdrew his application to build a storage facility on the site.
In June, the city approved putting the gas station there.
Appellants are asking for oral arguments. The city had not filed a response at press time.