“I’m excited and pleased with the ruling and look forward to continuing on to make some progress at McClellan,” said Ronnie Smith, chair of the MDA. “(I) hope the plaintiffs in this suit, in this case are willing to allow this to be the resolution of the matter.”
Attempts Friday to contact plaintiff Ben Little and attorney William Eugene Rutledge were unsuccessful.
The MDA has been managing the development of McClellan, but has been unable to sell property because companies would not issue title insurance for the properties. The MDA was formed as an advisory board after a 2008 deci-sion by Judge Joel Laird declared its predecessor, the Joint Powers Authority, was formed improperly and not legally valid.
In May, Laird rescinded his decision, and the JPA reorganized long enough to transfer all assets to the MDA and dissolve itself. With that clear trail of ownership, the MDA was able to sell property, until councilmen Ben Little, Herbert Palmore and former councilman Stan Bennett filed the most recent lawsuit claiming the MDA was improperly formed.
The judge dismissed all the claims of the plaintiffs, with prejudice. That means that although the three have the right to appeal the case up to 42 days from the decision, up to Aug. 6 -- but it cannot be heard in a Calhoun County court again.
“If they choose to do so it will have to be an appeal to a higher court,” said Jason Odom, attorney for the MDA.
However, Street recognized the defendants may still appeal.
“This court encourages all local elected and economic leaders to join together in furtherance of the economic redevelopment of McClellan to the benefit of all citizens in this area,” he wrote in the decision.
The judge ruled against the MDA on only one point. The defendants had asked for attorney fees and costs under the Alabama Litigation Accountability Act, which allows plaintiffs to collect the fees in “vexatious” cases.
Street’s decision denied that motion.
“While this court can certainly see where defendants have been annoyed or feel harassed by Plaintiffs’ actions in filing suits against McClellan Development Authority, the court is not currently of the opinion that Plaintiffs’ conduct reaches such a level of vexatiousness to warrant the imposition of the ALAA.”
The decision comes as the MDA is facing some financial hurdles. It has been unable to sell property for more than a year and that is the only means the organization has to make money to develop the former military base. As of October, the association could be facing some deep cuts.
Now that the cases have been dismissed, the MDA may be able to move forward with sales of property that have been on hold for months. However, unless the plaintiffs are willing to waive their right to an appeal, the MDA will not be able to sell any property until after Aug. 6, Odom said.
Ken Joiner, one of the defendants in the lawsuits, is pleased with the decision and echoed Smith’s comments.
“It’s a great day for the community as a whole,” Joiner said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to move forward. I hope these folks are, let’s say, happy filing frivolous lawsuits, will let this thing alone.”
Joiner, the Calhoun County administrator, is looking forward to being able to hand over to the MDA the final re-sponsibilities the county has been carrying out as the cases have moved through the court.
“We have continued to carry out the ESCA (Environmental Services Cooperative Agreement) program, the cleanup out there,” Joiner said. “Hopefully, we can work with the Army now and get them to do an assumption agreement with the MDA which will put them in place as far as the Army is concerned.”
Contact staff writer Laura Camper at 256-235-3545.