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South Mississippi Living 4/07

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Clermont Harbor rezoning shot down on appeal

November 8, 2007

HANCOCK COUNTY -- The developers called it paradise. Environmentalists called it a nightmare. Now, a state appeals court is calling it over.

The Mississippi Court of Appeals has overturned a county zoning decision that would have allowed towering condominium buildings to be constructed in the Clermont Harbor area. In calling the zoning move "arbitrary and capricious," the court threw a major roadblock in the path of Paradise Properties.

The issue began in May 2005, when the group sought preferential zoning treatment to allow the development. The Hancock County Board of Supervisors agreed, and rezoned about 1,000 acres in beach areas, changing zoning from primarily single-family residential to a new designation called resort commercial.

The new classification allowed condominium developments to be built with no height or density restrictions. There was talk of building thousands of condos, and one developer claimed units were already being pre-sold. Public meetings were also held to promote incorporating the small area into a separate city, to be called Paradise.

The activity made jaws drop throughout the county and threw environmentalists nearly into apoplexy. The issue wound up in circuit court, where the county's zoning decision was upheld.

A small band of county residents then fought the decision in the court of appeals, with support from Coastal Community Watch, a local citizens' group. Several condominium developers rallied around the county in its defense of the new zoning, said Biloxi lawyer Robert Wiygul, who filed the appeal to fight the change.

Wiygul said the higher court decision, made public Tuesday, should prevent multi-storied condomiuniums from crowding the land and skyline in the Clermont Harbor area.

"They are definitely not going to be able to go forward with these things now," he said.

Lori Gordon, one of the appellants, applauded the appeals court decision, saying, "This whole show was run by developers." She added she hoped the decision will prompt county supervisors "to take more care in dealing with the lives and futures of the people of Hancock County."

Under Mississippi law, a zoning change requires convincing evidence it's necessary because of a change in the character of the affected area. The appeals court ruled the county's finding of change in the area was "sparce and conclusory at best, and nonexistent at worst."

"The way to get rebuilding on track in Hancock County is by listensing to the citizens, not pushing mega-development," said Ellis Anderson of Coastal Community Watch. "The court's ruling gives us another chance to do things right."

It was unclear Wednesday what action, if any, county officials might take. However, supervisors recently made an about-face on another condomiunium development proposed along the Jourdan River in Kiln, and turned it down.

© 2007 Sun Herald. All Rights Reserved.

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