Hancock County

Lawyer’s discovery stuns Bay St. Louis officials

Bay St. Louis zoning commissioners meet in 2016. On Tuesday, the City Council learned the city’s zoning laws may not be legally in effect.
Bay St. Louis zoning commissioners meet in 2016. On Tuesday, the City Council learned the city’s zoning laws may not be legally in effect. wmuller@sunherald.com File

You could have heard a pin drop at Tuesday’s City Council meeting after a lawyer told city leaders what he discovered about the city’s zoning laws — they don’t legally exist.

Bay St. Louis attorney Stephen Benvenutti told the council the city’s comprehensive zoning ordinance was never published, as required by law, when it was adopted by the previous City Council in 2010.

Municipalities are legally required to publish zoning change proposals and other significant measures in the municipality’s local newspaper within 30 days of a council’s vote. The newspaper of record for municipalities in Hancock County is the Sea Coast Echo.

Benvenutti presented a letter from City Clerk Sissy Gonzales, who was not in that post in 2010, confirming the city has no record of the ordinance’s publication.

Councilman Lonnie Falgout, who was not on the City Council in 2010, said the city clerk is responsible for publishing such measures.

The zoning ordinance was part of a comprehensive plan that took more than two years to develop amid rebuilding from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Every city affected by the storm was developing similar plans at the time.

At the time the zoning ordinance was being developed, Mayor Les Fillingame and other city officials characterized it as among the most important documents the council may ever pass, according to an Aug. 11, 2009, Sun Herald story. The ordinance spells out in great detail what can be built where in Bay St. Louis, from homes to businesses, and includes details on lot sizes, setbacks, building heights, landscaping and many other items.

Several council members have expressed concern over the ramifications of Benvenutti’s findings, which may render the current zoning laws null and void.

“There’s a letter from the city clerk saying there’s no record of this,” Falgout said. “It didn’t happen. It’s null and void.”

The city may now have to revert to the previous zoning laws, and some who have been denied zoning permits since 2010 could have grounds for a claim against the city, said Councilman Mike Favre, who also was not on the council in 2010.

“It’s pretty scary, yeah,” he said. “That’s my take on it.”

Benvenutti was addressing the council Tuesday on behalf of businessman Bill Adam, owner of Wood Products Inc. Benvenutti is representing Adam in litigation stemming from a dispute with the city over Adam’s use of his property for certain business activities.

The litigation began about six years ago after the city issued cease-and-desist orders based on the current zoning laws. Adam contends his business was grandfathered in under the old zoning laws, Benvenutti said.

The passage of the zoning ordinance in 2010 had important effects on wards 5 and 6, which were annexed after Katrina. Both wards were under Hancock County zoning prior to the 2010 ordinance. Those areas include large tracts of waterfront property as well as property along Mississippi 603.

The mayor said he has not yet verified Benvenutti’s claim that the ordinance was never published.

“We’ve got our legal people looking at it,” he said. “At the very worst, it would roll back to the previous ordinance.”

The Sea Coast Echo also has yet to confirm if it has a record of the ordinance’s publication.

Wesley Muller: 228-896-2322, @WesleySMuller