The future of a Mississippi horse farm that has provided therapy and horseback riding to help children and adults with a wide range of special needs for more than three decades is up in the air due to prominent estate lawsuits by Warren County and the City of Vicksburg.
The horse farm is one of three remaining real estate disputes as work continues to acquire land for the Port of Vicksburg expansion.
According to a November 2021 resolution jointly approved by the Warren County Board of Supervisors and the Council of Mayor and Aldermen of Vicksburg, the two entities embarked on eminent domain proceedings to obtain 28 parcels of land, totaling approximately 1 034 acres and totaling over $830,000 in appraised value, according to county tax records.
However, three owners still in the eminent domain process say they are not being offered enough.
One such owner is Leigh Ann Nosser, who operates the nonprofit Rainbow Farms, which provides riding lessons and equine therapy for people with special needs. Nosser said she was “baffled” when the company received an eminent domain filing notice.
Nosser also said the company, which has been in business for nearly 35 years, would need to be relocated as part of a possible settlement of the dispute.
“One thing I will say is I want an out of court settlement. I’m not trying to crush anyone or anything. I commend Pablo Diaz and the Warren County Port Commission,” she said. “(Diaz) has been very nice, very accommodating. It’s a tough position to be in.
“He always, right off the bat, said, ‘We don’t want to put you out of business. We want to make you whole. And all this time we had been working towards this piece of property on Oak Ridge Road,” she added. “We both agreed it’s a great property. Everyone liked it and we were moving forward with it, and then, I guess, once the lawyers got involved, it all seemed out of place and we were served.
According to an appraisal by Nosser and his attorney, the farmland and its outbuildings are worth $1.6 million. However, the assessed value of the property is significantly lower, based on county tax records.
It’s something that has caused a lot of conflict for customers, Nosser said, with many of them worried that Rainbow Farms could go bankrupt altogether.
“I have a lot of people with disabilities who are in therapy with us, I have people with special needs who have show horses here, and they’re sitting in front of my desk crying, like, ‘What the hell? what are we going to do? We have nowhere to go,” she said. “And I tell them we’re going to fix this. The business is going to continue. Shutting down is not an option. feel like I’m more than fair, just asking them to put it back on.
Nosser said she doesn’t know what she might receive if the land is acquired through eminent domain, nor does she know the amount of any offer made by the Harbor Commission to buy his property.
“I think the move is necessary; I never opposed it. The points have been made and I want to work with everyone,” she said. “But we were going in this direction, and Pablo and all of them said to me, ‘We want to heal you.’ And (the new property) is what I need to heal myself.
The Harbor Commission did not provide comment to confirm or refute Nosser’s statements, citing ongoing litigation.
Farmland at stake
Two other landowners also provided comments on the matter, explaining why they feel justified in taking the dispute to court instead of selling at the port.
For Mildred Rone, the 70 acres of land at stake has sentimental and income-generating value.
“Initially they were going to take the whole place, and now they’re going to take about half of it. We only have about 70 acres. It’s planted in trees with a government program,” said Rone “They don’t offer a lot of money for it; none for the fact that I have an income from there. I don’t see any reason for them to take up all the space. All they need , this is what is needed for the port.
Rone inherited the land from his father, who bought it in the 1950s.
For landowner Ronnie Muirhead, the problem is his livelihood.
“They don’t offer enough money, for one thing,” Muirhead said. “It’s my livelihood, my hobby. It’s my life; I cultivate it.
Muirhead has owned his 286-acre property for 11 years.
Both Rone and Muirhead declined to provide a dollar amount they were offered or are asking for for their land, citing ongoing litigation.
“I’ll say this: it’s worth more than what they’re offering,” Muirhead said.
Weigh the benefits
While land disputes and eminent domain proceedings are ongoing, some landowners said they see value in the project — value that far outweighs the downsides.
Bishop Oscar Degas of The Word Church in Vicksburg said his church sold 5 acres of its 18-acre property for port expansion. Although originally listed as one of the properties involved in the prominent estate proceeding, Degas said the sale of the 5 acres was a “no brainer”.
“(The project) hasn’t affected us yet, but they needed 5 acres of church property because that’s where the state said, MDOT said, the road has to go,” said Degas. “They were very fair with us – I didn’t get what I wanted – but they were very fair.”
The Word Church property was valued at $25,000 an acre because it is one of two parcels of land purchased for the port expansion that faces US 61 South. According to a June 24 article in The Post, the property sold for around $121,000.
Fortunately, Degas said, the church will not have to move.
“After seeing the appraisal of the land, what it was used for and what the market value was, it was a no-brainer,” Degas said. “And then you go to eminent domain, we probably would have gotten way less than we got. It was a fight we weren’t going to win, and that’s where the MDOT said the road had to come in.
Conclude an agreement
Perhaps the greatest benefit of the harbor expansion for nearby property owners is the construction of a new levee system, as the property is in a flood zone.
Even if a property hasn’t been flooded in years, being in a flood zone equates to higher insurance rates and lower property values.
“Now where our 16 acres used to be in a flood zone, it won’t be in a flood zone anymore because we made the deal,” Degas said. “If they build the sea wall to protect their 5 acres (we sold them), they will have to protect our other 11 acres, and our property value will increase.”
Kiel Niederriter of Industrial Wood Products said he was looking forward to seeing the new port complex and sea wall.
Although his company property is not involved in land acquisition for the port expansion, it is adjacent to the site and, Niederriter said, will also reap the benefits.
“From a business perspective and us bordering this area where the new port will come into play, I think the addition of the seawall that they are going to build should not only protect more of the city and the community from the south side of (US) 61, but it also gives us the possibility that in the future, if we want to grow our footprint, there is accessible land that is not in a floodplain,” he said. said. “That’s a big deal because if you’re in a FEMA floodplain, it affects your insurance rate. I guess every business in town would benefit from reduced insurance premiums because we won’t be inside that floodplain anymore.
The benefits extend beyond protecting Industrial Wood Products’ existing property, Niederriter said.
“I think on the one hand it gives us accessible land that we could expand at a much more affordable cost,” he said. “Another element of this is that, from what I understand, they are going to extend the rail spur to this port. If we have access to that spur, it opens up new markets for us, logistically, that we currently don’t do business with and can’t economically ship by truck.
“Generally I have to believe that if they create another port they are doing it to attract new business to the community – which should not only create more jobs in the community but also a larger tax base for get other things done,” added Niederriter. “I hate that it forces them to use eminent domain to achieve these goals. I don’t think anyone wants to do that.
The official word
Although no comment was provided by the Harbor Commission due to ongoing litigation, Warren County Board of Supervisors Chairman Kelle Barfield issued a statement on behalf of the county.
Barfield said the public project is the culmination of years of research, study and due diligence.
“Our existing port, long the heart of our region’s transportation and trade infrastructure, continues to serve this community well, but is at maximum capacity,” Barfield said. “Additional inland port infrastructure is essential for the future growth and prosperity of the citizens of Vicksburg and Warren County, and for Mississippi as a whole.”
Barfield also justified the actions of the supervisors, working with the City of Vicksburg and the Warren County Harbor Commission, in pursuing eminent domain to accomplish the project.
“We have successfully concluded a contract for the purchase of most of the properties required for the public port project. These eminent domain procedures are for the rest of the necessary property,” she said. “While not undertaken lightly, these procedures will ensure that owners receive fair market value and that this important public project comes to fruition for the benefit of our citizens.
“We remain in constant communication with affected landowners to ensure they receive fair value through this process,” Barfield added. “Investing in the infrastructure of a new public port will ensure that our community is able to take advantage of the economic opportunities that a river city affords us for years to come.”