No ruling yet in lawsuit over water, sewer jurisdiction lines

By Blenda Copeland

A proposed commercial business development in the police jurisdiction in Ladonia is the springboard of a current county-city jurisdictional lawsuit.

At stake are how future sales taxes might be distributed that could benefit the county and/or city, and water and sewer jurisdiction rights.

Russell County is suing the City of Phenix City over water and sewer jurisdiction in the area where developer Girard Partners LP wishes to establish Ladonia Commercial Subdivision (LCS) near the current Neighborhood Walmart. It appears both the county and the city are claiming rights over the area’s water and sewer jurisdiction. The county is asking the court to intervene.

A March 2 hearing was held at the Russell County Judicial Center. County Attorney Kenneth Funderburk confirmed as of mid-afternoon Monday, the judge had not yet made a ruling; the city confirmed Tuesday morning it also was still unaware if a ruling had yet been made.

According to the lawsuit, filed in Russell County Circuit Court Jan. 22, the development had not been able advance because the city had rejected construction plans per City Attorney Jim McKoon’s advisement.

Court documents show City Engineer Angel Moore cited Dec. 14  McKoon’s reason was on “grounds that Russell County Water and Sewer Authority cannot provide water and sewer inside the water and sewer jurisdiction of the City of Phenix City […]” thus, “Until this issue is resolved, the City will not approve the commercial subdivision development construction plans for Ladonia Commercial. Since this property lies within the City’s Planning Jurisdiction, the City’s Subdivision Regulations apply; therefore, no improvements shall be made to the property by the developer prior to receiving the City’s approval of the construction plans from the City.”

In its initial court filing, the county asserted the proposed development would fall within its water and sewer jurisdiction, which was established in 1999.

Court documents show the city’s Resolution No. 2016-353, approved in 2016, states, basically, that city services, such as water and sewage, “are limited to the corporate limits of the City […]” but may be offered in cases like police and planning commission jurisdictions “that are set by State statutes and approved and supported by actions of the Alabama State Legislature.”

Online, the Code of Alabama in Section 11-4-10, 3(b) states city ordinances adopted after Sept. 1, 2015 have “force and effect in a police jurisdiction of a municipality or town” if the municipal governing body provided a 30-day notice that the ordinance was effective in the police jurisdiction. If notice requirements weren’t properly complied with, the ordinance has no effect in the police jurisdiction.

Police jurisdictions in Alabama are continuing to cause issues regarding which entity is responsible for providing certain services – the county or the city. Different citizens believed to be in the police jurisdiction have appeared in recent years before the Phenix City Council and the Russell County Commission seeking which entity is responsible for fixing their complaints. The complaints have involved road issues, law enforcement response/protection, taxation, which entity represents their interests as taxpayers, and now apparently, water and sewer jurisdiction authority too.

Adding to the confusion, laws have changed in recent years regarding police jurisdictions – how they’re defined, what validates the their legality if created before a certain date and also if created after that date, how far they can reach outside the city limits, and even how cities can enforce certain powers in certain areas, etc.

Annexation into a city also has been part of ongoing discussions and is a factor in this case as well.

Court documents show the city engineer has asserted that Phenix City water and sewer services “are only accessible if the property is annexed into the City.”

The Jan. 22-filed court case involves The Russell County water and sewer authorities and Russell County, Ala., by and through the Russell County Commission, as plaintiffs. The named defendants are The City of Phenix City, the city’s utilities department, the city’s planning commission and “fictitious parties x, y, and/or z.”

According to the initial filing, the county seeks a preliminary injunction to stop the city from laying claim to the water/sewer jurisdiction in that area, outlined in six counts, and also a permanent injunction to stop the defendants on three other counts.

City Manager Wallace Hunter and City Attorney Jimmy Graham confirmed to The Citizen Tuesday that unless ordered by the court to stop, the city intends to continue forward with the project.

Hunter confirmed the city defended itself at the March 2 hearing.

“It benefits both (the city and the county),” he said of projects like LCS, because they generate property and sales taxes. Hunter said it’s his job as city manager to recruit more opportunities for the city.

Regardless, Hunter confirmed if the judge rules in the county’s favor in this case, the city will respect the decision.

The city council approved at its council meeting Tuesday an April 17 public hearing per a first reading Planning Commission request on behalf J. Menza Dudley Jr., the owner of the 14 acre-property, to annex and zone the property as C-4 (Highway Commercial District). The hearing will be open to the public and occur during the Phenix City Council meeting, which begins at 9 a.m. ET in the City Council Chambers at the city’s Public Safety Building.