Residents may be losing land to road

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 7, 2009

NATCHEZ — From her front door, Gwendolyn Ware can look out at Emerald Mound. It’s the land her family owned years ago.

But that’s about to change.

Ware, along with her family and neighbors, are on the verge of having to leave their homes to make room for a road project meant to increase access to Emerald Mound from the Natchez Trace.

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While Ware has already sold her land for the project, she said the stress of the situation was just too much.

She and her neighbors don’t like the way the matter has been handled and fear losing their property.

The funding to purchase the land to be developed is from federal money given to the Mississippi Department of Transportation.

That money was given from MDOT to the Adams County Board of Supervisors to purchase right of ways.

The supervisors then hired Howard Herring, owner of Ridge Point Consultants, to buy the rights-of-ways on their behalf.

Once the county has the land, it will be donated to the National Park Service for development.

But that development means people have to be moved from their homes.

And Herring said that will include the use of eminent domain.

Of the 17 parcels to be acquired for the project, approximately 65 percent were purchased by Herring on the county’s behalf.

The un-purchased plots fall under the category of condemned.

That means either the owner refused to sell or the all property’s owners cannot be located .

In either case, the condemned properties have now been made ready for eminent domain, Herring said.

“It’s already started,” Herring said of the process to take the land. “If it’s condemned, it’s past that point.”

And the eminent domain process has residents who refused to sell concerned.

Jannie Hoggatt, Calvin Kimbro and Paula Newton are all living in the path of progress and are all worried.

“We don’t want to lose our land,” Hoggatt said. “And we haven’t been told what’s going on.”

Hoggatt refused to sell her land, approximately 13 acres of an 84-acre section that’s been in her family for more than 100 years.

The land has two homes on it, and moving would displace several of Hoggat’s family members.

Now she’s facing being forced out by eminent domain.

On top of that, she said she, like her neighbors, was never told exactly what was going on.

And Hoggatt isn’t the only one who finds that troubling.

President of the Adams County Board of Supervisors Henry Watts said he found it odd that there was never any public hearing on the matter.

“It’s unusual not to have a public hearing on a property taking,” Watts said.

Watts said when the project was first presented to the board, he estimated more than a year ago, it was presented as a development project that wasn’t supposed to impact people — just land.

After hearing about the use of eminent domain to remove residents from their homes supervisor Darryl Grennell said he and the board were caught off guard.

At Monday’s supervisor’s meeting, Hoggatt and other residents argued their case before the supervisors and asked for help.

And while Hoggatt, Kimbro and Newton are facing eminent domain proceedings, just who will take action on the proceedings is somewhat of a mystery.

On Tuesday morning Herring said he had filed the paperwork to start the process with MDOT’s acquisition department.

Later in the day, MDOT Executive Director Butch Brown said MDOT’s only involvement in the project was to transmit the funding to the supervisors to buy the land.

“We’re technically, in my opinion, not involved,” he said.

“It’s not an MDOT project, it’s a county project.”

Later in the day, Herring then said the paperwork was given to “someone in the county,” so that the proceedings could be started.

Herring refused to name that person.

However, Watts, Grennell and County Attorney Bobby Cox said they were unaware of any such paperwork.

Grennell also said it would not be possible for anyone to start eminent domain proceedings on behalf of the county without first getting approval from the supervisors.

But land owners are worried and want answers.

“It’s not an issue of money,” Newton said.

Newton co-owns some property with Hoggatt.

“We want to be treated fairly, and we want to know what’s going on. We haven’t been told anything.”

Watts said Herring is scheduled to be at the board’s Jan. 20 meeting to meet with the board and residents.