JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi city failed to properly inform property owners in a majority-Black neighborhood that their homes could be targeted for eminent domain under a redevelopment plan, some residents argue in a federal lawsuit filed Thursday.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Southern District of Mississippi, said the coastal city of Ocean Springs created an “urban renewal” proposal in an area that includes the properties of four residents and a local Baptist church. A move by the city to declare parts of the area blighted could allow it to exercise eminent domain — the government transfer of property from private to public.
The property owners allege the south Mississippi city did not provide them an adequate opportunity to challenge the plan.
“Ocean Springs cannot brand neighborhoods as slums in secret,” said Dana Berliner, litigation director for the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm representing the property owners. “Depriving people of their property rights without any process is a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution.”
The lawsuit asks the court to declare state urban renewal codes that the city followed unconstitutional.
In a statement Thursday, Ocean Springs Mayor Kenny Holloway said the city’s proposed plan follows Mississippi statute and that Mississippi Attorney General Fitch will address the claims that the statutes are unconstitutional.
“The city’s proposed Urban Renewal Plan has not violated anyone’s rights. It is unfortunate that our residents have chosen to file a lawsuit instead of having a constructive discussion with the city. I have personally invited residents to my office to explain and answer questions,” Holloway said.
Residents were given the option to remove their property from the proposed plan, Holloway said.
Ocean Springs officials approved a proposal in April designating some properties in the city’s Railroad District blighted. The majority-Black neighborhood became ensnared in the city’s ongoing redevelopment plan, according to the lawsuit.
The plan is focused on urban renewal as a strategy for driving economic development. It defined an “urban renewal project” based on a Mississippi statute approved in 1972 that says municipalities can stop the “development or spread of slums and blight,” which “may involve slum clearance and redevelopment in an urban renewal area.”
After the proposal was approved, property owners had 10 days to challenge it under Mississippi law. But the city did not inform the owners about the blight designations or their significance, and the deadline passed, the property owners said. That deprived the owners of their due process rights, their attorneys argue.
Cynthia Fisher, one of the people suing Ocean Springs, said she has lived in the Railroad District for 70 years. Her daughter lives in the home Fisher inherited after her own mother passed away, and she has no intention of selling. But now that the home has been declared blighted, she fears the city might force her to sell one day.
“We’re proud of our neighborhood and while we may not have a lot of money to put in our homes, we keep them well,” Fisher said. “What the city did, labeling our neighborhood as a slum without telling us, was wrong.”