- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 2, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Owners of five mobile home parks are challenging the city of Pearl’s rental property regulations in federal court, saying the city ultimately seeks to close their businesses. The city, though, says the rules aim to ensure residents are safe from fires and tornadoes.

“The city’s objective is to shut us down and they have taken step after step after step to do so,” lawyer John Corlew told U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate during a Wednesday hearing. Corlew argued that the city is misusing its rental ordinance, which includes requirements for mobile home parks and apartments to build tornado shelters and rainwater detention features, by not grandfathering existing properties.

“You cannot take the nonconforming status of a property owner away without removing their due-process rights,” Corlew said.

The owners want Wingate to enter an order that allows them to fill empty spaces in their parks without complying with the rental property ordinance. Corlew argued the ordinance is a “subterfuge” that the city fell back on after the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the neighboring city of Richland couldn’t use its zoning ordinance to block a mobile home park there from replacing individual trailers. A judge then blocked a similar Pearl zoning provision.

A group of apartment owners who own 1,145 units in the city have joined the lawsuit. They too object to requirements for tornado shelters, as well as requirements to retrofit buildings with sprinklers.

Citing experience from a 2014 tornado that hit a mobile home park and concerns from fire officials, Pearl lawyer James Bobo argued the city is justified. He rejected Corlew’s claims that the ordinance discriminated against poorer people. The 2010 Census found that 37 percent of Pearl’s 25,000 residents were renters.

“It’s almost insulting that they raise the specter of poor people,” Bobo said. “The poor people they claim to be serving, they’re not concerned about whether they burn up. They’re not concerned about whether their neighbor’s trailer rolls over them in a tornado.”

Bobo rejected claims that the city hadn’t adequately notified the park owners of problems. He also said those suing hadn’t proved their claims that building tornado shelters would be prohibitively expensive.

The city government seeks its own preliminary injunction to bar new mobile homes from being placed without city approval. Pearl Mayor Brad Rogers, who was sued personally, seeks to be dismissed from the case.

The hearing will continue Thursday. It was unclear when Wingate would rule.

It’s the latest in a series of legal battles over regulation of mobile homes, apartments and rental houses in Jackson suburbs.

The city of Ridgeland faces multiple state and federal lawsuits after adopting a 2014 zoning ordinance that declared 15 apartment complexes violate density limits and must reduce their number of units.

Madison property owner Mike Crook challenged Madison’s property rental ordinance, including a requirement that owners post a $10,000 bond for each property against possible repairs the city might require. The state Supreme Court upheld most of the ordinance this year, but ruled Madison couldn’t require landlords to allow warrantless searches.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy

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