Judge rules in favor of Bluebird Properties in 'Friends of Children' industrial park location issue

Bluebird Properties, Inc. owner Ken Keyes testifies in court during the September 17 zoning ordinance hearing as Chancery Judge Robert M. Logan makes notes.

A local Chancery Judge has ruled on an ongoing controversial issue that spawn in 2019 concerning the City of Bay Springs, a nearby real estate developer, Friends of Children of Mississippi, and young children of the area.

Judge Robert M. Logan ruled last week in favor of Bluebird Properties, Inc. in a variance zoning issue hearing previously denied by the City of Bay Springs.

The Bay Springs Board of Aldermen in mid-November 2019 denied a variance request by Bluebird Properties, Inc. that would have essentially allowed the forward progress of a Friends of Children of Mississippi facility to possibly be located at a property within the realms of the industrial park in Bay Springs.

The variance requested was to change an industrial zoning area to commercial as to allegedly fit with a Friends of Children of Mississippi application that would be submitted to the State Department of Health for inspection of a proposed Friends of Children facility. Without the variance change, the application could not even be submitted. The board also had other concerns with safety and health issues of young children.

In November 2019, the Bay Springs Board had tabled a vote on the issue from the previous city meeting (two weeks prior) to give Bluebird Properties’ owner Ken Keyes, represented by an attorney out of Laurel, and Friends of Children of Mississippi Facility Coordinator Albert Carter an opportunity to speak to the board before a final decision was made about the variance. Neither Keyes nor Carter were available for that meeting.

In the coming weeks, Keyes appeared with new legal services (Brame Law Firm of Bay Springs) to discuss the issue of whether the facility would be a “daycare” or a “school” with the Bay Springs Board of Aldermen. The issue had already been entered into a legal suit objection over the variance in Jasper County Circuit Court by Bluebird Properties, and City of Bay Springs Attorney Joseph Sims advised the Board to not speak of the issue in that meeting.

The variance issue suit was eventually moved from Jasper County Circuit Court to Jasper County Chancery Court where it was recently heard on September 17 by Judge Logan. The main issue brought up in court during the hearing by the plaintiff, Bluebird Properties, revolved around legal zoning of the property and whether it is an industrial or commercial property that could be used as a Friends of Children facility - primarily the question over the facility being a “day care” or “school” which was a changing issue laid out in a city zoning ordinance that dates back to 1969. A school is permitted within the ordinance, a day care is not.

Judge Logan made aware early during the hearing that he could only take into account the zoning legalities with the filed suit Bluebird Properties presented and that safety would not be considered by the court. The safety issue had been a main concern of the City of Bay Springs.

In Judge Logan’s final opinion after hearing testimony from Keyes and Friends of Children of Mississippi representatives, as well as testimony from city officials, he stated, “Clearly, the facility, which is designed for the eduction of young children is a school. It may also perform day care functions, but the evidence establishes its character as a school, with nothing in the record to rebut it.”

In considering a school being allowed in an industrial (1) zone like that of the Bay Springs Industrial Park, Judge Logan further stated in the opinion, “Dr. Cathy Gaston, who is the interim executive director of Friends of Children of Mississippi, a nonprofit corporation, testified that the Head Start facility in question will be operated under a federal grant and will be subject to federal regulations and audit …

“The Court finds, therefor, that the proposed school is a public use necessary to conduct business of the federal government. It is also unlikely the City would have intended to totally exclude a facility such as a Head Start center from operating within the municipality.”

This judgement will allow for the forward progress of the project.

Keyes testified during the hearing Bluebird Properties had spent approximately $200,000 on renovating the building to meet Friends of Children of Mississippi guidelines, and the facility before the board denied the variance was 90 percent complete with six classrooms. It was also learned in court the rent on the property in question is $8,500 a month.

Several city officials still expressed concern of safety of children at the industrial park, while also respecting Judge Logan’s decision.

“Our main concern was safety, and the board voted for them not to do it,” said Mayor J.E. Smith. “Our responsibility is OK, but we voted not to do it, and the Judge overruled it. The Judge said he couldn’t rule on safety.”

Ward Three Alderman Jimmy Knotts said he felt like the situation was a misrepresentation.

“I think they (Bluebird Properties) are misrepresenting the whole thing. In reality, it goes back to the day care situation. What are you going to teach 6-month-old children at that point in time,” he said.

Ward 4 Alderman Ron Keyes said he knows what the industrial park area is like, after working at a plant in it for over two decades. Safety of the children is still on his mind.

“I’ve been working there (at the industrial park) for 25 years. I’ve seen evacuations. There has been a guy get shot up there. There are a lot of things going on at an industrial park, especially throughout the day,” he said.

Jasper County News reached out to Bluebird Properties owner Ken Keyes Tuesday to learn his opinion of the ruling. Keyes mentioned through text that he would like to do an interview, but did not answer a phone call later in the day.

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