Taylor aide says plan not likely to happen

Published 4:19 pm Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Public officials worry that a proposed plan from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could have South Mississippi saying so long to Beach Boulevard and hello to Levee Lane.

Parts of Hancock County and Henderson Point would be fenced off and levees and seawalls would border other areas of the Coast, according to a concept circulating through city halls and county boardrooms.

The corps and the Department of Marine Resources have been shopping around a massive buyout and levee initiative for South Mississippi in small group meetings with Coast leaders. The corps’ concept would offer a one-time buyout option to thousands of Coast property owners in an expensive effort to convert formerly- or currently-developed private land into protected beaches, wetlands and parks. Whether those who choose not to sell would be eligible for future disaster assistance from the federal government is unclear.

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Worries about the project and its consequences may be unfounded.

Chris LaGarde, a natural resource specialist to U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, said Congress would first have to allocate a giant chunk of money and that’s unlikely to happen any time soon.

“We should certainly increase the width of the beach and build more dunes, but to think you can build a Coastwide seawall and buy out all these properties — it’s just not going to happen,” he said.

LaGarde, a staffer with the Bay St. Louis congressman who is rebuilding his home in Cedar Point, said the local panic may be from a lack of information coming from the corps and DMR.

Rocky Pullman, president of the Hancock County Board of Supervisors, wonders why it’s just happening now.

“They should have done this right after the storm,” said Pullman. “Why let people go through the heartaches and headaches of trying to rebuild and then come up with a proposal to sacrifice everything we’ve built?”

The plan calls for some of the Coast to become “accelerated buyout areas,” including parts of Cedar Point and most of Shoreline Park, which Bay St. Louis recently annexed.

That area also includes most of the Bay-Waveland School District, Hollywood Casino and hundreds of homes, the loss of which local officials fear would tank the county’s taxable income.

Nearly half of Henderson Point in Harrison County is targeted as a “priority” buyout area, along with most of Gulf Park Estates and Bell Fontaine in Jackson County.

The corps and DMR publicly released bits of the proposal in June. The Sun Herald reported a plan for new beaches, wetlands and parks in Jackson County, based on the information the agencies were willing to talk about. Now local leaders say the plan is not all that warm and fuzzy.

As part of the initiative, named the Coastal Improvements Program, the agencies want to build a 10-foot levee along the railroad through the three Coast counties.

A new seawall along the beach in Lakeshore and Waveland also would be built. In Harrison County, the seawall would extend from Henderson Point to just east of Jones Park in Gulfport, pick up again near Point Cadet and stretch across most of the Jackson County shoreline.

A corps spokeswoman said the agency has not yet determined how high the wall would be or whether it would mean the end of South Mississippi’s panoramic beachfront view, but local officials fear the barrier would be drastically higher than what’s there now.

DMR Director Bill Walker said the agency met with county leaders in Hancock and will talk with Harrison officials next week. The agency also plans to hold public meetings before bringing the concept to Congress.

There are dozens of unanswered questions: What about the property owners who are rebuilding homes? What about the millions of dollars already spent to overhaul infrastructure in the accelerated buyout areas? What about beachfront casinos and South Mississippi’s economy?

Walker said casinos and condos are unlikely to be part of the buyout, because “they, for the most part, have been built to survive that kind of weather.”