Judge to decide fate of ‘Friends of Children’ moving into Bay Springs Industrial Park

Bay Springs City Attorney Joseph Sims (left) argues in court Thursday against Bluebird Properties and a potential Friends of Children of Mississippi facility moving into the Industrial Park in Bay Springs as Ward 5 Alderman Bob Cook (seated left), on behalf of the City of Bay Springs, and Ken Keyes (seated right), owner of Bluebird Properties, observe in court.

A controversial issue concerning the City of Bay Springs, a nearby real estate developer, Friends of Children of Mississippi, and young children of the area that spawn in October 2019 and brought about the attention of many in the area made its way to Jasper County Chancery Court last Thursday.

The Bay Springs Board of Aldermen in mid-November 2019 denied a variance (zoning) request 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.

All five aldermen - Ward 1 Steve Breland, Ward 2 Mike Lucas, Ward 3 Jimmy Knotts, Ward 4 Ron Keyes, and Ward 5 Bob Cook - voted unanimously against allowing a zoning variance requested by Bluebird Properties, which owns the property in the industrial park.

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. Guidelines within the city and county owned industrial park by-laws say, according to the board of aldermen, that a product must be produced at facilities located in the park. 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, neither of whom were at that initial meeting when the variance was first brought to light for a vote, the courtesy to speak to the board before a final decision was made about the variance.

Neither Keyes, his legal representation, nor Carter was at 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 Circuit Court to Chancery Court where it was heard by Judge Robert M. Logan, Jr. last Thursday.

The property proposed to house the Friends of Children facility located in the industrial park on which the variance was requested sits adjacent to Peco and behind several other industrial facilities in the park. It is also located only approximately 30-to-50 feet from one of the industrial park and city maintained chemical-water and waste-water lagoons, only separated by a newly constructed cyclone fence.

It was relayed Friends of Children of Mississippi, according to discussions that took place at an October 15, 2019, meeting of the Bay Springs Board, had entered a contract with Bluebird Properties on an area Friends of Children facility to be located at the property in the industrial park.

The property once housed an Ellisville State School work program for approximately 15 years as a job place for Ellisville State School residents, where plastic goods were packaged for distribution. The property had already undergone visible renovations from the outside, including a newly constructed 6-foot cyclone fence, specific to Friends of Children guidelines (according to Carter).

Keyes testified Thursday 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.

According to both Carter and Dr. Cathy Gibson, Friends of Children Interim Director, the proposed facility would house during the day children ages 6-months-old and older, presumably to the age before those children could enter the Friends of Children facility located on Highway 18 East in Bay Springs, which will remain open.

The main issue brought up in court Thursday by the plaintiff, Bluebird Properties, was the legal zoning of the property and whether it is an industrial or commercial property that could be used as a Friends of Children facility, as well as a debacle over how and when city permits might have been issued.

City Attorney Sims argued on behalf of the city during testimonies that issue, as well as the safety of young children, which the board discussed heavily at previous meetings. Bay Springs Ward Five Alderman Bob Cook, vehemently interjecting the safety of children while on the stand Thursday, and a number of other city employees testified during the proceedings.

Judge Logan made aware early during the hearing that he could only hear and take into account the zoning legalities with the filed suit and that safety would not be considered by the court.

Keyes testified he thought it was a “perfect” place to house a Friends of Children of Mississippi facility, while also clarifying that he does not have any children.

Judge Logan took all accounts and deliberations into consideration following hours of testimony that lasted from around 10 a.m. until the early afternoon Thursday. He notified the plaintiff (Bluebird Properties) and defendant (City of Bay Springs) he would look over the documents presented to the Court, would consider the testimonies, and would soon render an opinion.

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