The City of Jackson cannot annex land surrounding the Jackson Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled on March 13, upholding a December 2021 Hinds County Circuit Court decision.
The facility is between Pearl and Flowood, both in Rankin County, but on land the City of Jackson owns. Associate Justice Robert Chamberlin wrote the court’s unanimous decision and ruled against the City because its leaders did not ask the Rankin County Board of Supervisors for permission when the City Council approved the annexation resolution in August 2019.
The cities of Pearl and Flowood joined Rankin County in August 2019 to ask the Hinds County Circuit Court to void the resolution, and it did in December 2021. The City then appealed to the Supreme Court later that same month.
The contested land consists of an undeveloped area surrounding the airport. The City’s 2017 development plan included using 400 acres to create aerospace, light manufacturing and distribution facilities in addition to approximately 300 acres for commercial low-density office and hotel development.
The airport became Mississippi’s first commercial jet airport upon its groundbreaking in 1959. In 1964, the Mississippi Legislature created a statute allowing the capital city to incorporate the airport property into its municipality without Rankin County’s consent. Jackson is located in Hinds County, directly to the west of Rankin County.
The 1964 legislation included Section 61-9-5, which the Mississippi Supreme Court said on March 13 “prohibits Jackson from further extending the boundaries of the airport into Rankin County without compliance with ‘all existing laws of this state governing or relating to the extension of corporate boundaries’ and without obtaining consent and approval from the Rankin County Board of Supervisors.”
The law the justices referenced says that, after a municipality with a population of at least 100,000 incorporates an airport outside its borders but within a 10-mile radius, it cannot expand further without “first obtaining the consent and approval of the board of supervisors of the county into which it desires to extend its corporate boundaries.” Jackson is the only city in the state with a population exceeding 100,000 people.
The Mississippi Free Press asked City of Jackson Communications Director Melissa Payne to respond to the ruling on Monday. “We don’t have a response right now,” she said.
Court: Plan ‘Is Clearly Prohibited’
In the ruling, the Mississippi Supreme Court described the airport as “allegedly owned by Jackson” and explained in a footnote that “deeds are not included in the record and Rankin County disputes that there is sufficient evidence to show the property is owned by Jackson.”
“Additionally, Rankin County disputes that the property constitutes ‘an airport or air navigational facility,’ says the opinion, which Associate Justice Robert P. Chamberlin wrote.
Jackson incorporated the airport in line with the 1964 law, the justice explained.
“The Legislature created the statutory mechanism that Jackson utilized in 1964 to incorporate airport property that it owned into its municipality without the consent of Rankin County, despite the fact that the land was located in a different county and was not contiguous to the municipal boundaries,” Chamberlin wrote.
Jackson claimed it did not have to comply with a part of the 1964 statute that requires the approval of the Rankin County Board of Supervisors to expand beyond the airport’s current boundaries “because it was ‘incorporating airport property that it owned,” but the opinion said it does.
“Jackson is now attempting to enlarge the airport, not to incorporate a separate airport,” Chamberlin wrote. “By its very definition, such an extension into Rankin County is clearly prohibited without approval of the Rankin County Board of Supervisors. Jackson is arguing that despite the unambiguous prohibition in Section 61-9-5, this Court should allow it to further enlarge its island of land in Rankin County. Jackson’s argument is without merit.”
Rankin County attorney Jacob Bradley did not reply to a voice message or email from the Mississippi Free Press on Monday for comments for this story. Another Rankin County attorney, William “Trey” Jones III, told the Mississippi Free Press over the phone on Monday that he would have to speak with the Board of Supervisors before making a comment.
Attorney John Scanlon, who represents the Rankin County cities of Flowood and Pearl in the litigation, said he believes the court made the right decision in an interview with the Mississippi Free on Monday.
“The cities of Pearl and Flowood are pleased with the result and happy that the court interpreted the law showing what all requirements must be fulfilled before an annexation of the airport is attempted in this way,” he said. “The written consent of the Rankin County Board of Supervisors was never obtained, and that’s really the beginning and the end of the entire analysis that the court made.”
Court Case Against ‘Airport Takeover’ Ongoing
In 2016, then-Gov. Phil Bryant signed Senate Bill 2162 to replace the five city-appointed airport commissioners board with a nine-person board after an emotional floor fight between bill supporters and representatives of the majority-Black capital city. Under the legislation, the Mississippi National Guard adjutant general, the Mississippi Development Authority executive director, the Madison County Board of Supervisors, the Rankin County Board of Supervisors and the lieutenant governor would each appoint one member to the board. The Mississippi governor and the City of Jackson would each appoint two members.
Mississippi Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood, who filed the bill, told the Jackson Free Press in 2016 that no specific situation prompted him to file the bill.
“Because municipal airports provide millions of dollars in revenue for cities, the bill drew immediate criticism from the City of Jackson and its residents, who viewed the move as an attempt to divest vital economic resources away from majority-Black, financially strapped Jackson and into affluent majority-white neighboring suburbs in Rankin and Madison counties,” the Jackson Free Press reported in 2019.
Despite earning Bryant’s signature, the law is not currently in effect. Former airport Commissioner Jeffery A. Stallworth filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi Court against the law in April 2016. The suit alleged that the law amounts to racial discrimination and came about at the time the facility had its first black chief executive officer and the first all-Black commissioners.
The City joined the suit in June of that year, and the matter has been in litigation ever since, putting the State’s attempted airport takeover on hold.
“To date, over thirty Mississippi municipalities own airports. With the passage of Senate Bill 2162, each of these municipalities—except the City of Jackson—can exercise discretion over their respective airports’ governance, including the discretion to create a municipal airport authority and to appoint the members of the board of that authority,” the City wrote in a July 2016 filing.
“A majority of these municipalities are governed by officials that are majority Caucasian, if not totally. A majority of these municipalities have a populace that is not comprised of a majority of minorities, but are Caucasian majority. Conversely, the City’s governing officials, and the qualified electors residing in the City, are majority African American and other minorities. Furthermore, the City created the JMAA, which currently is directed by a Board that is comprised of a majority of African Americans.”
Then-Ward 7 Councilwoman Margaret Barrett-Simon, who is white, expressed her pain in relation to that 2016 bill publicly that year.
“I have been representing the City of Jackson for 32 years now, and never in my history here have I ever seen anything as ridiculous as this is,” the Jackson Free Press reported her saying that year. “The very idea that people of the City of Jackson invested in this airport, own this airport, and that someone at the state capitol believes that he can take it from our citizens, and we will fight this to the bitter end.”
Attorney: Pearl, Flowood Have Annexation Cases
Attorney Scanlon said Pearl and Flowood filed separate petitions in 2018 to annex portions of the land near the airport, which were on hold pending the determination of the case.
“Pearl has an active annexation case where it’s seeking to annex certain property next to the airport,” he said. “And Flowood has an active annexation case in which it’s seeking certain property to be annexed on the other side, but next to the airport as well. It’s the same property that was at issue that Jackson was trying to annex off of the airport.”
“The annexation cases filed by Pearl and Flowood have been stayed temporarily until the outcome of this matter, now that this matter has been resolved, Pearl and Flowood annexation cases will be able to resume.”
Jackson is a party in that litigation, and Scanlon said the capital city may have a short window to file a motion to reconsideration or rehearing with the Supreme Court with regards to the March 13 decision.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba said during a mayoral debate in March 2021 that Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann wanted the City to give up the airport in exchange for cash for infrastructure repairs.
“I sat down with the lieutenant governor to talk about Jackson’s infrastructure problem,” he said at the debate. “We had a conversation that lasted for about an hour-and-a-half, and he asked everyone to leave the room only to say, ‘Mayor, I need you to give me my airport, and I look at it for about $30 million. So not only am I supposed to be dumb, I’m supposed to be cheap, right?”
After those remarks, Hosemann’s office did not confirm the specifics of that conversation, but told WLBT that he supports a resolution to the airport saga “for the betterment of the City of Jackson, the metro area, and the state as a whole.”
The Jackson Free Press reported in 2016 that the white lawmakers who wanted to take revenue-generating operations from the majority-Black capital city included some with economic interests near the airport.