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South Mississippi Living 4/07

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Hancock officials oppose buyout

Posted on Tue, Oct. 09, 2007

BILOXI -- Two elected officials from Hancock County have told the state Department of Marine Resources they will ask their boards to oppose any federal buyout plan of private lands in the county, even if the program is voluntary.

County Supervisor Jay Cuevas and Jim Thriffiley, president of the Bay St. Louis City Council, delivered their message to Bill Walker, DMR's executive director, during a lengthy meeting at DMR headquarters late last week. A buyout is one option being pushed by DMR and the Army Corps of Engineers through a plan called the Mississippi Coastal Improvements Program.

The plan calls for the federal government to buy large tracts of privately owned lands that flood repeatedly and use the property as nature preserves and parks. Both DMR and the corps have emphasized that a buyout would be purely voluntary.

That made little difference to Thriffiley, however. "I'm against any buyouts because I believe it's going to lead to the demise of the neighborhoods," he told Walker.

The elected officials were part of a Hancock County group that met with Walker. The group included Sam Moore and Dennis Bordelon, president and vice president of the Garden Island Community Association, and Chris LaGarde, an environmental aide to U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor. The Sun Herald was also there.

Moore arranged the meeting. LaGarde did not voice opposition from Taylor's office to the buyout plan during the discussion, saying if such a program occurred, it would be many years down the road.

On Sept. 17, the DMR and corps announced an ambitious plan to buy thousands of flood-prone acres in the south county. The Shoreline Park and Cedar Point areas would be included.

The announcement was also accompanied by revelations that the corps is studying other possibilities such as beach and dune restoration and constructing an extensive levee system as tall as 30 feet, a seawall around Bay St. Louis, and flood gates at the mouth of the bay. However, one corps presentation has classified the seawall option as unlikely.

Other buyout trial balloons are being floated for parts of Harrison and Jackson counties.

But alarm over the plan has been especially pronounced in Hancock County.

The local officials said that since Walker made the announcement at a public meeting in Bay St. Louis, economic fears have infected the county and thrown shadows over prospects for new development and hurricane recovery.

"People are just backing off and it's leading to a panic," said Thriffiley. "The buyout situation is worse than a stock market crash for our community."

Cuevas told Walker that construction was on the upswing in the county before the buyout announcement. But since then, he said, growth has slowed and, "My phone hasn't stopped ringing" with calls from citizens frightened of the plan. He said he has received no calls from business people or property owners who favored a buyout.

Walker told the group that a buyout plan "might take up to 10 years." But he said that if all governmental entities in Hancock County oppose it, "DMR will not recommend" the program. He said his agency has been acting in an advisory capacity to the corps.

"This is not something the DMR or the corps is trying to force on anybody," Walker said. But, he added, "In order to protect the Coast from future storms, there needs to be a buyout of repetitively damaged property."

Positions stated by Cuevas and Thriffiley differed from a formal resolution passed by the Hancock County Chamber of Commerce, which has asked the corps and DMR to work through local businesses and governments in developing the coastal improvements program. The chamber resolution made no mention of a buyout plan, voluntary or otherwise.

Thriffiley also told Walker he does not oppose other parts of the corps plan aside from the buyout. "We don't want to shut down this plan except for the buyout," he said. "That's the only part we want to negate."

The Bay St. Louis City Council is scheduled to meet tonight. County supervisors do not have another regularly scheduled meeting until next week.

"I don't see our board voting for the buyout," Cuevas said after the meeting. "But until we get it on the minutes, nothing's official."

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