The Biggest Little Annexation Case in State History.

“We all decided that we’d rather be adopted by a rich uncle than a poor one,” says Britt Singletary. Which is how this Biloxi lawyer ended up in a lawsuit — against his own hometown.

story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published September 1, 2010

Call it what it is: the only time the city of Biloxi’s ever been thrilled to be sued.

There aren’t supposed to be happy stories that come out of lawsuits like this. But here they are a decade later, the city of Biloxi and one of its feistiest residents, with the feel-good story of the time a lawsuit changed the landscape of the coast — or at least, the boundary lines that define it.

The feisty resident: he’s Britt Singletary, a lawyer whose business card all but reads “I’ll see you in court.” He lives just north of Interstate 10, in an unincorporated part of Harrison County, in a neighborhood called Wells Ferry Landing. On one side, it’s bordered by the bayou and the Tchoutacabouffa River. [1] On the other, there’s Highway 67, which runs south directly into Interstate 110, which ends at Biloxi’s Beach Boulevard.

Just to south of Wells Ferry Landing is D’Iberville, the city that sits on the land that used to be known as North Biloxi. Residents of D’Iberville think of their town as the forgotten grandson of the coast. While Biloxi, Ocean Springs and Pass Christian claim 300 years of history, D’Iberville lore dates back to the Reagan administration. Everyone else has a piece of the coastline, and D’Iberville’s stuck with I-10.

But in the 1990s, the city started to view the interstate as an asset. The city’s population was still modest, and they wanted tax revenue to support new projects. That left the city with two options: either attract new residents (unlikely) or annex the unincorporated land nearby where neighborhoods had already been built.

So City Hall looked just north of their boundary line, to the 25 families living in Wells Ferry Landing. When word reached Singletary, he rounded up his neighbors. The community was unanimous in their decision: they made their money in Biloxi. Their children went to school in Biloxi. Their families went to church in Biloxi.

If anyone was going to annex them — and at this juncture, Singletary explained that annexation was inevitable — it should be Biloxi.

“We all decided that we’d rather be adopted by a rich uncle than a poor one,” Singletary says.

The case, on the surface, looked like a flimsy one: at no point did any of the Wells Ferry Landing property touch Biloxi’s city limits. But Singletary knew of a state law that had only been used once before in Mississippi, and it allowed an area to be annexed by a city even if the property does not touch the boundary lines of that city.

So Singletary went and did what he does well, and often: [2] he sued. He sued the city of Biloxi, demanding that they annex the citizens of Wells Ferry Landing. Meanwhile, an election was coming up, and Biloxi mayor A.J. Holloway knew what that meant: if he was going to tell voters that he was willing to stand up for the people of Biloxi, he needed to do so now for residents of Wells Ferry Landing. Holloway agreed to sue D’Iberville on behalf of Singletary and his neighbors.

But the citizens of Wells Ferry Landing knew that once the case was over, they’d be the ones paying for their own decision.

“There was nothing in this for us but a tax increase,” Singletary says.

Still, the showdown was set: the City of D’Iberville, the city with just one official decade on the map, vs. the City of Biloxi, the self-proclaimed gem of the coast, the former Seafood Capital of the World and the home to the widest selection of casinos found anywhere between Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Only one could take the neighborhood, and the tax dollars that come with it.

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Wells Ferry landing, the town that sued to become part of Biloxi.

(Above) The neighborhood of Wells Ferry Landing, on the banks of the Tchoutacabouffa. (At top) Britt Singletary addresses the Biloxi City Council at an August meeting.

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Outside of the courtroom, the shenanigans were just beginning, as both sides tried to gain an edge for the trial. But Singletary had seen it all before. He’d worked as council to the United States Senate Judiciary Committee, clerked for the state Supreme Court and served as a United States magistrate judge. Moves that D’Iberville tried to slip under the radar didn’t get past Singletary. When D’Iberville bought the utility company that served Wells Ferry Landing, Singletary made sure that D’Iberville lawyers couldn’t use that ex post facto purchase in their case. When a last-minute vote that would have aided the D’Iberville cause ended up in the state Senate, Singletary called in favors, and convinced the Republican caucus and the black caucus to join together to defeat the measure.

Then Singletary — with years of experience from the bench, and from the other side — started making moves of his own.

“You’ve gotta know what’s inside the box to think outside of it,” Singletary says.

Singletary knew that the judge, the Honorable J. Shannon Clark, had a history of weakness for female witnesses, so Singletary says that he lined up every woman in the neighborhood to testify. Then, when the judge came to visit Wells Ferry Landing, Singletary had a surprise planned: every man, woman, child and dog was out playing in their front yards. They had signs planted in each yard, with a big check next to the word “Biloxi.” At the end of the street, neighbors had built a giant lemonade stand.

Now, thanks to the ruling, the cities of the coast have entered the era of the land grab. Each city wants to expand to allow residents to move to higher ground while still remaining inside city limits. It’s the kind of territorial infighting that hasn’t been seen in these parts since the Louisiana Purchase, and it’s been a boon for Biloxi.

“Like it’s Mayberry all the time,” says Tina Gillich Singletary, Britt’s ex-wife, who still works with her former husband at their practice in downtown Biloxi.

The judge saw all that — plus the pro-Biloxi messages printed on each cup of lemonade — and he couldn’t say no to the neighborhood.

“Sure enough, he put us in Biloxi,” Singletary says.

D’Iberville appealed the case to the state’s Supreme Court, and finally, in the fall of 2004, they handed down the final word: the neighborhood belonged to Biloxi.

Now, thanks to the ruling, the cities of the coast have entered the era of the land grab. Each city wants to expand to allow residents to move to higher ground while still remaining inside city limits. It’s the kind of territorial infighting that hasn’t been seen in these parts since the Louisiana Purchase, and it’s been a boon for Biloxi. Since the ruling, Biloxi — which used to be locked in by a peninsula, with Gulfport blocking expansion to the west — has been able to annex property and cross over the Back Bay.

The way Biloxi’s Holloway sees it, D’Iberville and Gulfport are attempting to block his city’s potential growth. He says that these annexation battles — including one that’s still ongoing regarding another property just around the corner from Wells Ferry Landing — are the only way Biloxi can get access to growth areas to the north.

“We can’t let them have a free shot,” he says.

But Rusty Quave, D’Iberville’s mayor since 1993, says it’s Biloxi that’s been the bully in these cases. He says he’d “feel comfortable having no more annexation” after this recent court battle is decided. The court costs are too high, and the short-term rewards are too few.

On this, Holloway actually agrees. A few years ago, the city went to court to annex an area called Woolmarket, a neighborhood that I-10 runs through. Holloway says the city is paying $6 million per year to maintain Woolmarket, and only taking in $1 million per year in taxes from it. But he says he won’t turn back now. Even facing the worst economic situation of his time as mayor, he says failure to annex property now will leave Biloxi helpless in the future.

“We have to save our growth area,” he says. ❑