What Gulf Coast Congressman Gene Taylor wanted the Easter Bunny to bring him.
South Mississippi Living 4/07

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Buy-outs may be ‘voluntary,’ but insurance a big question¯

By Mary G. Seiley
Sep 21, 2007, 17:56

Area officials are apparently taking a go-slow approach in reacting to state and federal plans for a buyout of flood-prone portions of Bay St. Louis.

Despite some loud pleas from the audience at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, council didn’t jump at the chance to go on record opposed to buyouts, voluntary or mandatory.

Instead, council endorsed a Hancock County Chamber of Commerce resolution on the matter.

The Chamber resolution, passed on Tuesday afternoon, doesn’t even have the word “buyout” in it. It urges coordination and cooperation of all governments involved. It also states that the draft Mississippi Coastal Improvement Plan is “negatively impacting recovery and rebuilding efforts by citizens, volunteer groups, faith based organizations, developers and investors…"

Much of the Chamber resolution outlines the extensive 20-year plans under development now in the Bay, Waveland and Hancock County, all considering future ways to mitigate storm damages.

Council members said they’ll go on record with some resolution of their own, waiting until the Oct.8 and Oct. 9 meetings to revisit the issue.

Some citizens are saying voluntary buyouts may be just the thing this area needs. Others are saying the program would devastate the local economy.

The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held a public meting Monday on the topic, drawing more than 500 local residents and politicians. At that meeting, DMR’s director, Dr. Bill Walker, stressed repeatedly that the buyouts under consideration would be voluntary only.

The idea, he said, is for a federal buyout of areas which are so flood prone they can’t be protected by physical structures such as levees and seawalls. The government would buy up those areas -- such as Cedar Point and Shoreline Park, and forever restrict structural development on them.

Owners would be given cash for their land and money to build homes on safer grounds, he said. The huge area between Bayou La Croix and Julia Street, all along Highway 603, contains high-risk areas labeled for an “accelerated buyout” program, and “potential“ buyouts later.

Even as the vast majority of citizens railed against such a plan Monday, there were a few who spoke up saying it’s probably a good idea.

One said so at Tuesday’s meeting. Debra Kennedy told City Council that some property owners in the flood prone zones won’t be able to sell their lands on the private market. At least the buyout would put “money in their pockets” to build in a safer place.

One big, unanswered question concerns whether property owners who turn down a buyout offer would be able to buy federal Flood Insurance in the future. Further, some doubt that private homeowner insurance will be affordable in such areas, especially after the new federal flood maps are issued.

“If they offered me a buyout and I say no, there’s a possibility my insurance rates will go sky high and I can’t stay anyway,” said Sam Moore to council.

Another citizen Bob Wingate, said it’s useless to pass a resolution opposing mandatory buyouts, when DMR insists their proposal is for voluntary participation only.

Ward 1 councilmember Doug Seal, whose Cedar Point territory was wiped out by Katrina, said a voluntary buyout program has been going on there for years. “Land in Cedar Point has been bought…because of repetitive (flood) losses,“ he said. “This is not new. It’s just the magnitude of it."

The Chamber’s resolution urges President George W. Bush, Gov. Haley Barbour and members of Congress to require that any plans by the DMR or Corps in the future “only include those that are designated as appropriate through the city of Bay St. Louis, city of Waveland and Hancock County comprehensive plans.

“This effort would restore faith in the community by citizens, volunteers, business owners and investors.”

Real Estate broker Camille Tate said the Chamber originally voted to push that the buyout plan be voluntary only. “They had it in there but took it out,” she said.

And Tate said as it stands, the high cost of insurance has slowed area sales to a crawl. “As far as prices being elevated right now, they may be. But (properties) ain’t selling.”

Council initially endorsed the Chamber resolution, but rescinded it as debate erupted over whether the city should denounce mandatory buyouts. Some in the audience said they should denounce voluntary buyout too.

Former City Attorney John Scafide warned that any such vote now is premature. He said he has “a sneaking suspicion” that there’s a connection between the draft federal plan and the new Base Flood Elevation maps that are in the wings.

If those new maps make it virtually impossible to build single family homes in the areas at issue, he said, “you may want to see voluntary buyouts as the only way out for some people.”

Taking the opposite view was Carroll Gordan, father-in-law of Rep. Gene Taylor. “Take it out, mandatory or voluntary. Take it out. It’s going to kill you,” Gordan said of the buyout idea.

Council finally agreed to undo whatever motions and votes they had taken during the night and take their time in writing a separate resolution.

Council members each went on record with preliminary positions. At-large council member Bill Taylor said he’s opposed to mandatory buyouts and any “wholesale buyouts” in general. Agreeing with that was Ward 4’s council member Bobby Compretta, but both said they weren’t sure they’d want to oppose voluntary buyouts.

Seal said he too opposes mandatory buyouts, but added many other parts of the federal plan are good and need to be considered, such as new elevations and rebuilding a stronger community. “We can’t opt out of the program,” said Seal. “We do have to mitigate” the dangers of living on the Coast. He also questioned “at what point” will America lose interest in this area’s flooding problems.

“It’s America,” he said, “and there are people who want to sell out now. But…what happens if everybody sells? It needs to be looked at carefully.”

>Ward 3’s Jeffery Reed also opposed mandatory buyouts. “But…I think people have the right to do what they want to. This is America. You own something, I think you have the right to do what you want to with it.”

Ward 2’s James C. Thriffiley III, said if council doesn’t go on record against a mandatory buyout, “it puts the breaks on development and…destroys builder incentives.”

© Copyright 2007 Bay St. Louis Newspapers, Inc.

The Sea Coast Echo published the original article Septebmer 21, 2007.

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