The battle for the fate of three Live oak trees turned the city hall boardroom into a courtroom for more than four hours Tuesday.
At a special meeting, the Board of Aldermen voted 5-2 to deny the appeal of the Tree Committee’s decision in June allowing the removal of three Live oaks at 209 Front Beach Drive. That means the trees can be cut down.
Aldermen Robert Blackman and Michael Impey voted in favor of the appeal.
It’s a saga that’s been going on since February, and both sides were presented in front of a packed board room.
Wrigley originally filed the appeal on behalf of all of those who opposed the decision.
“I would love nothing more than to see all of you preserve the character and what makes Ocean Springs special,” she said. “I really just want you to follow the law.”
The other side, led by Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Randolph who owns property next door to the home, believes the trees should be saved. Randolph brought before the board multiple “expert witnesses” including an arborist, community members, lawyers and multiple architects.
Randolph commanded the room as his own courtroom for nearly three and a half hours.
Fireworks started early as Randolph called the special meeting a “de novo hearing,” a Latin legal term which means a hearing that basically starts from scratch without using prior factual findings or legal conclusions.
He said Littlepage should go first, and that he and his witnesses would then respond. When that was denied, he later moved for the case to be dismissed due to a “lack of due process.” That was also denied, with Ocean Springs Mayor Shea Dobson stating only aldermen could start motions.
Edward Markle, the lawyer representing Ed Trehern who lives on adjacent land to the property, came equipped with a large easel.
“It’s easy to say ‘we’ve been through this too many times, cut the trees down,’” Markle said to the board. “The people elected you to take care of their families. Part of that family Is the heart and soul of this community which are the trees.”
“You cut one down, you have to let Joe and Sally and others cut theirs down.”
Randolph brought up multiple architects that said the design of the home could “easily” be made to where it could accommodate the trees.
Andrew Dooley, who owns a design studio based in Mobile and specializes in residential coastal projects, presented his own design of the home with the same features to accommodate the trees.
“This entire redesign took less than 5 minutes,” he said. “It took me longer to cut out the squares on this manila sheet of paper.”
Randolph continued to call witnesses and presented nearly 20 exhibits. He questioned everything from drainage to soil erosion to the health of the trees.
At one point in the 9 o’clock hour, Dobson asked the chief justice to wrap up his arguments and witnesses.
“It’s been three hours,” Dobson said.
“The trees have been here for 300 years,” Randolph replied.
Littlepage then took the podium with her lawyer and two experts. She said that she loved Ocean Springs and the trees, but this was something necessary for her to build her home.
“We wouldn’t have a city without cutting down trees,” Littlepage said. “We would have no Ocean Springs. It happens because people want to live and have a beautiful home.”
She then recounted all of the previous meetings on the issue, many of them lengthy and some having to be adjourned due to “unsuccessful attempts to restore order.”
“The entire public was heard, but we weren’t heard,” Littlepage said.
She argued that she could not work around the trees because she would lose over half of the depth of the lot. She also said she was afraid the trees could be a hazard and cause damage if they were to fall.
Littlepage also had two witnesses, a retired arborist who specialized in Live oaks and a representative from Heinrich & Associates, a company hired to look at the drainage conditions on the property. Both addressed issues brought up by Randolph’s witnesses.
Randolph attempted to object multiple times, but the mayor did not allow it.
After more than four hours, the board went into executive session to discuss litigation. Twenty minutes later, they returned to the boardroom.
It was asked of Littlepage if she would reconsider designing the house. Her answer was no, citing the safety of exiting and entering the roads.
With no sight of mediation, the board decided to take it to a vote.
“That was our plan was to see if there was any leeway, and obviously there’s not,” Alderman John Gill said. “We’ve been through this for six, seven months? I think the board is ready to move on; it’s time to move on.”