RIDGELAND — The city did not attempt to prove any meaningful change had occurred around a proposed Costco when a zoning amendment pertaining to big box stores was approved last year, the attorney for residents opposed to the development argued in court on Monday.

About 50 people filed into Madison County Circuit Court Monday afternoon to hear the appeal of the June 2016 zoning ordinance amendment that paved the way for the proposed Costco off the Highland Colony Parkway just south of the Natchez Trace.

Right-of-way for the eight-mile $10 million Parkway, which opened in April 1994, was donated by landowners with the express intent of creating commercial development.

The proceedings, heard by Circuit Judge John Emfinger, lasted about an hour.

The court allowed each side 30 minutes to present their case and allowed some extra time for the judge to ask a few specific questions.

The nine residents who filed the appeal are: Gerald Emmett Beard, Charles Jules Michel, Harold Joseph Byrd, Nils Kerem Mungan, George Thatcher Shepard Jr., Matthew Denson DeShazo, William M. Aden, Thomas I. Rice III and Joel G. Payne Jr.

The appeal specifically concerns an amendment made to the city’s zoning ordinance, specifically changes made to the C-2 zoning classification, that the plaintiffs claim were specifically made bring in a Costco to the Renaissance Phase III development on the Highland Colony Parkway.

The homeowners accuse the city of “spot zoning,” saying the have not demonstrated that the area’s makeup had changed in any meaningful way to warrant a zoning change.

The amendment to the C-2 zoning allow certain elements from C-2a and C-3 zoning classifications that include allowances for fast food restaurants and drive throughs. They say an item concerning service stations was added from C-3 specifically for Costco.

Beard and company were represented by attorney Sheldon Alston. Jerry Mills represented the city.

“The city has not proved, nor have they tried to prove that these changes occurred and as far as I am concerned that is all we need. That ends the argument and we win,” Alston said.

Alston went onto to argue that “spot zoning” hurts property owners because they depend on the zoning staying “consistent.”

Alston cited documents where city officials, including Mayor Gene F. McGee and Community Development Director Alan Hart, communicated directly with developers to tailor the zoning amendment to benefit Costco specifically. Communications with Costco were codenamed “Santa Claus.”

He also argued that advertisement for the zoning ordinance amendment hearing had not been properly advertised, though he said the city had made proper moves to correct that error.

Mills did not refute that the city had consulted with Costco on how to write the amendment, but added that the change affected at least 17 other areas in town.

Hart’s communications and testimony revealed that he had received interest from other large master planned developments containing big box stores.

Mills also cited a Mississippi Supreme Court Case from the 1960s that ruled “spot zoning is not, per se, illegal.”

After hearing both sides, Judge Emfinger thanked the attorneys for their time and said he would “give a decision as soon as possible.”

“I do not think it is good public policy for the elected officials of Ridgeland to change well-established, tested zoning standards at the behest of folks seeking to circumvent the law in favor of their development projects in the name of economic development of for any reason,” Beard said in a statement after the trial. “If a project warrants rezoning then follow the law and rezone it.”

He added, “The question for me, as well, is how viable are all the retail developments being undertaken in Ridgeland and what will the impact be on surrounding neighborhoods and the city as a whole in the long term?”

Last year, the developer, Andrew Mattiace, said they would like to start construction on the anchor tenant later this year. Land is already being cleared.

The proposed development would include one primary anchor tenant, Costco, and five additional tenants.

The anchor tenant would be located in the southern portion of the development and would include an approximately 150,000 square foot building with approximately 650 parking spaces and necessary utilities.

The additional five tenants would include a total of approximately 158,000 square foot of retail space with approximately 955 parking spaces.

The project, as it stands, will be broken into two separate projects that operate off one master plan.

Central to the project is the Lake Harbour extension that will connect with the Highland Colony just south of the development.

Dogged opponents of the project have said that the development would bring in more traffic than the Parkway could handle and would alter the serene aesthetic appeal residents have long enjoyed living in the country.

Those opposed are mostly residents of nearby upscale developments of Montrachet, Dinsmor, Canterbury, Windrush and Greenwood Plantation all west of I-55 in the Old Agency Road vicinity.

Other reasons have been that the development would alter animal habitats and the natural flow of Purple Creek, which drains south toward County Line Road, although state Department of Environmental Quality officials cleared the development in June of last year and again at an evidentiary hearing appealing that decision in early November.

Constructed by Madison County, the city of Ridgeland and the city of Madison, the Parkway initiative required special enabling legislation in the Mississippi Legislature.

When the Parkway opened, with the exception of the then-brand new Madison Central High School, there was nothing but forest and pasture land, but which has since exploded with commercial and even residential development, especially north of Old Agency, attracting major corporate tenants like C Spire and stand-alone buildings for many of the metro’s major financial institutions like Trustmark.

The Parkway runs all the way from I-220 in Jackson north to Mississippi 463 in Madison.