Jackson County

The Shed vs. MDOT: Strangest eminent domain case in 30 years

A burned pig is one of the few things that remained of The Shed restaurant after the structure burned in February 2012.
A burned pig is one of the few things that remained of The Shed restaurant after the structure burned in February 2012. ttisbell@sunherald.com

An attorney in the case of MDOT vs. The Shed says it’s the strangest eminent domain case he has worked in 30 years of practice.

The Mississippi Department of Transportation is set to go to trial Monday to take a 100-foot swath of property from The Shed Barbecue & Blues Joint.

“But the business doesn’t have a certificate of occupancy. It’s never been inspected and it doesn’t meet the county’s building codes,” said Gary White the assistant attorney general assigned to the MDOT case. “We’re trying to determine the value of a building the county says is illegal.

“I’ve never dealt with a case where someone built a building without a permit. There have been no inspections out there. The county says ‘We can’t guarantee the safety of the people eating out there.’ ”

He said if it’s illegal, then MDOT’s position is there will be no damage to it when they take some of the land and a piece of an outbuilding.

He pointed out that the county is set to take the owners to court in January over the code violations, and if it wins that case, the county could require it be torn down. It’s in a flood zone and must be elevated, if nothing else.

But on Monday, the case that goes before a jury in County Court is about the piece of Jackson County land that MDOT needs for widening Mississippi 57 north of Interstate 10, where The Shed is located. The fight is over less than a half acre that includes part of The Shed parking lot and part of an outbuilding. White said it doesn’t touch the restaurant proper.

According to the court file, MDOT set the value in 2012 at below $175,000. White said the owners, Brad Orrison and Brooke Lewis, a brother-and-sister team that made The Shed famous, want more than $1 million.

Orrison’s attorney, Calvin Taylor, had no comment on Friday.

The county’s case in January is about Orrison and Lewis rebuilding after a February 2012 fire without county permits. The restaurant doesn’t have a certificate of occupancy because Orrison didn’t follow through with a building permit and getting the reconstruction inspected, county planners said.

The Shed, before and after the fire, has always been a loosely constructed collection of rooms that give a folksy feel of being tacked together. Orrison and Lewis prided themselves on rebuilding with donated memorabilia and building material. The county initially allowed them to open with a portable building. Then they rebuilt the restaurant.

“I’ve never seen anyone ignore the building codes like this and just build a building,” White said.

“All eminent domain cases are about money. It’s complicated, but it’s really simple.

“We’re not taking the business. The value of the business is not relevant. The issue is the value of the property, the land.”

What value does an illegal building contribute to the land?

Michele Coasts, director of county planning, said they tried to work with Orrison after the fire “while he got settled with MDOT. But there have been too many continuances, delays — one after another. We felt he wasn’t moving forward.”

She said The Shed is a liability to the county now if it burns again with the county aware of the violations.

“We have to act on that,” she said. “We make everyone else clean up their property and meet the building codes. He’s no exception. We attempted to work with him because of the fire.”

“He contends he only made repairs to a building that partially burned,” Coats said. “We have pictures. It totally burned.

“What he’s got there now is not a structure. He keeps asking, ‘What’s out of compliance?’ The whole thing! It was built without a permit.”

She reminded the Sun Herald of the video on YouTube it posted, where Orrison is bragging about a wad of electrical lines plugged into one post of outlets during the reconstruction, laughing and saying, “As you can tell, everything is up to code baby .... welcome to Mississippi,” and Lewis saying, “Yeah, right.”