Railroad depot lawsuit dismissed

Published 12:03 am Tuesday, March 29, 2016

NATCHEZ — The lawsuit against the City of Natchez regarding the depot renovation has been dismissed.

Sixth District Circuit Court Judge Forrest Johnson decided March 1 to dismiss Ball’s appeal of the city’s lease of the Mississippi River Valley Railroad Depot, but none of the parties received notice of the decision.

Gwendolyn Ball, her attorney Christina Daugherty and Natchez Mayor Butch Brown said they were unaware of the decision Monday.

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Johnson said the circuit clerk’s office is required by law to send the decision to the parties in the case.

“Sometimes we forward copies to the attorneys as a matter of courtesy,” Johnson said. “I am not sure what happened in this case, but we are checking on it.”

He confirmed he filed his decision on March 1.

Johnson said in the Feb. 18 hearing regarding City Attorney Hyde Carby’s motion to dismiss the case he would take the matter under advisement for no more than 30 days due to the time-sensitive nature of the case.

At the hearing, Carby argued Ball’s appeal of the city’s Nov. 12 action to lease the property did not meet the 10-day statutory deadline to appeal city actions.

On Dec. 4, Ball filed an appeal of the city’s Nov. 12 action, saying it was illegal for the city to enter into the lease because the property had not been properly declared surplus.

At the hearing, Johnson described the 10-day time limit as “strange,” because it begins at the meeting when the action is taken, and not when the meeting minutes are published.

“Essentially, in order for someone to submit a timely appeal, they basically have to be there at the meeting to hear what’s going on,” Johnson said.

The Natchez Board of Aldermen voted on Sept. 8 to sign a letter of intent to work with the Mississippi River Visitor Depot LLC.

New Orleans hotelier Warren Reuther owns the LLC and intends to turn the historic train station into a small visitor information provider, which may include a small shop or refreshment stand.

On Nov. 12, the aldermen signed a development lease agreement, which is a short-term lease designed to allow Reuther to renovate the property before a 15-year lease is signed.

Another contractor is renovating the exterior of the building using state grant funds obtained by the city.

Mayor Brown said at the Nov. 12 meeting that the short-term lease would allow Reuther to begin renovating the inside at the same time, moving the project along more quickly.

Brown said work stopped on the depot as the city awaited a decision on the lawsuit. He said that was especially troubling to the city because the Nov. 12 decision was made in part in order to speed up work on the depot renovation.

“The contractor has basically stopped until it’s resolved,” Brown said Monday. “It’s unfair, because it’s a baseless lawsuit and a trifling matter that we have to deal with on many things we try to do for the good of citizens of Natchez.”

Johnson said at the Feb. 18 hearing that another appeal could be filed when a long-term lease is signed after the renovations of the depot are complete.

“If it reaches a point that court finds this decision was not timely appealed, so be it,” Johnson said last month. “It may be another fight down the road as far as an actual, formal lease.”