A sign that expresses opposition to Ocean Springs' proposed Urban Renewal Plan is seen in the front yard of a home in Ocean Springs, Miss., Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

A group of Ocean Springs residents, a business owner and a church all filed a lawsuit in federal court against the city on Thursday over an urban renewal plan that labeled certain properties as “slums” or “blighted.”

In April, the city gave that designation to over 100 properties around Ocean Springs. By doing so, the city paved the way to invoke a state law that allows the acquisition of such properties — with or without the owners’ permission — in order to remove “economic and social liability.” While many of the properties listed in the urban renewal plan are vacant lots, they also include occupied homes, businesses and the parking lot of a church in a historic Black neighborhood.

But residents say they didn’t find out about the plan until the city shared it on social media before a board meeting in August. The state law, according to Thursday’s lawsuit, allows just 10 days for residents to contest a “blighted” designation, meaning that Ocean Springs property owners missed their chance to do so because they only found out about the plan months later.

The Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm from Virginia that specializes in eminent domain cases, is representing the plaintiffs. The lawsuit is not just going after the city of Ocean Springs, but Mississippi’s laws around urban renewal in general.

Ocean Springs residents listen as other residents express their concerns with the city’s proposed Urban Renewal Plan during a public hearing at the Ocean Springs Civic Center on Monday, Oct. 2, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

“Mississippi law says you have to challenge the ‘blight’ designation in 10 days,” said IJ attorney Dana Berliner. “And people were contacting us (about the urban renewal plan) long after that. That is a violation of due process.”

Specifically, the complaint asks for judgments declaring the city violated the property owners’ rights to due process, that the city’s urban renewal plan is invalid, and that the state’s laws around urban renewal are unconstitutional.

After pushback following the August city board meeting, Mayor Kenny Holloway has repeatedly stated that the city won’t forcibly acquire anyone’s property. Holloway, who according to his city bio owns a real estate and development company, said last week at a public comment session that the city could’ve done a better job of communicating the intentions of the urban renewal plan. He added that the idea was to use federal grants to help make improvements around Ocean Springs.

Ocean Springs Mayor Kenny Holloway, left, responds to a speaker after concerns were expressed about the city’s proposed Urban Renewal Plan during a public hearing at the Ocean Springs Civic Center on Monday, Oct. 2, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

It’s unclear what the city’s next steps are now that it’s facing a federal lawsuit. Holloway told the Sun Herald after last week’s meeting: “We’re not going to stop the plan. We’re going to try to find some common ground and move forward.”

But even if the city doesn’t use the plan to acquire residents’ home, or even if the city scraps the plan altogether, harm has already been done to those property owners, Berliner explained.

“Even if the current administration does nothing like that, (the ‘blight’ label) is going to be there 20 years later,” she said.

According to the state law, she said, the owners have no way of removing the label after the 10-day period, which means a future administration could still acquire the “blighted” properties under a new urban renewal plan.

Ocean Springs residents whose properties have belonged to their families for generations argue that their homes and land don’t meet the criteria for “blighted” areas.

“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,” homeowner Cynthia Fisher said. “What the city did, labeling our neighborhood as a slum without telling us, was wrong.”

Fisher is a plaintiff in the case along with homeowners Esther Payton and Edward Williams. Robert Zellner, who owns an auto repair store in the designated “blighted” area, and the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, which owns the aforementioned parking lot, are also plaintiffs. A link to the full complaint can be found here.

Mississippi Today is working on ongoing coverage of this story.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Take our 2023 reader survey

Alex Rozier, from New York City, is Mississippi Today’s data and environment reporter. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Open Secrets, and on NBC.com. In 2019, Alex was a grantee through the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines program, which supported his coverage around the impact of climate change on Mississippi fisheries.