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South Mississippi Living 4/07

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Alternate to buyout program proposed

Posted on Tue, Oct. 30, 2007

BAY ST. LOUIS -- Local elected officials hammered out a possible compromise with state and federal representatives Monday, aimed at derailing plans for an ambitious private property buyout that has thrown shadows over the Hancock County economy since last month.

During a two-hour evening meeting that excluded the public, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Marine Resources said they may be willing to drop the buyout plan in favor of strengthening an existing program that allows the federal government to buy repetitively flooded lands from private owners.

That would likely narrow the scope of any buyout and ease fears by local officials that a grand-scale buyout would jeopardize redevelopment, devour Bay St. Louis and stop any progress that has been made since Hurricane Katrina.

"It's a lot easier to support than a potential buyout of two-thirds of Bay St. Louis," Mayor Eddie Favre said following the meeting.

Favre, members of the City Council and the county Board of Supervisors attended the meeting, along with Waveland Mayor Tommy Longo and Board of Aldermen representatives. Bill Walker, executive director of the DMR, and Susan Rees of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, were present.

Walker and Rees were the same officials who threw shock waves across Hancock County in September when they held a hastily assembled public meeting at Bay-Waveland Middle School. That night, they enraged some local residents by announcing a wide range of flood mitigation possibilities the corps had in mind for the county.

Those included a massive land buyout that would turn hurricane-vulnerable private properties into green space.

Since then, local elected officials have said construction has slowed, developers and investors are backing off the county, and homeowners who have already rebuilt are fearful of what might come next. But at Monday's meeting, Rees blamed the press for at least part of the ensuing public reaction.

She also described Hancock County residents and public officials as "gullible."

"We never envisioned that people were so gullible that they'd believe the federal government would come in and buy up 17,000 properties," she told the local officials.

"I don't think people here are gullible," Tax Assessor-Collector Jimmie Ladner Jr. responded. "People are scared."

Corps maps of the plan showed buyout areas that included all of Shoreline Park and other newly annexed neighborhoods stretching back to Cedar Point. That proposal brought loud protests and an opposing resolution from the Bay St. Louis City Council.

In an effort to find a solution, Monday's meeting was arranged by Tish Williams, executive director of the Hancock County Chamber of Commerce. During the discussion, official after official expressed how deeply the state and federal plan has wounded the county.

"Real estate has been slow," said Bay St. Louis Councilman Bobby Compretta, also a Realtor. "But when this buyout hit the newspaper, it hit rock bottom."

Under the compromise idea, Walker and Rees indicated they would consider dropping the overall buyout for Hancock County and meet with a three-member committee of elected officials to craft a new plan. It would involve possibly broadening an existing FEMA program that allows owners of property that floods repetitively to sell out to the federal government.

The current program calls for FEMA to pay 75 percent on such buyouts. Local governments are responsible for a 25 percent match, but hurricane-strapped governments now can't afford that. If the corps were to assume the buyout power instead of FEMA, the federal government might then shoulder 100 percent, officials said.

Meetings between the state, the corps and the local committee will begin as soon as possible. Rocky Pullman, president of the Board of Supervisors, will represent the county. City Council President Jim Thriffiley will represent Bay St. Louis, and Alderwoman Lili Stahler will represent Waveland.

Meeting tonight
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' proposed buyout program will be the focus of Jackson County Supervisor John McKay's town hall meeting at 6:30 p.m. tonight at Ocean Springs Middle School.

The corps is seeking public input about a proposed flood prevention plan which would buy hundreds of low-lying residential homes in the county's flood plain with federal funding.

"This is a great opportunity for Jackson County's residents to learn about the corps' buyout program in person," McKay said. "This meeting is open to all county residents and officials. We are going to have the people who can answer the important questions."

© 2007 Sun Herald. All Rights Reserved.

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