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Warr's Development Plans Facing Certain Changes
"Warrtopia" May Not Occur as Envisioned

by Keith Burton   GCN   8/14/08

Republican Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr's vision for redeveloping major portions of Gulfport may soon require him to wear corrective lenses. On almost every front, his honor's unique vision of what he sees as his mark on the city is being challenged and will result in changes to his oft-repeated "plans."

Warr has said that he wants to focus his city's future on five primary redevelopment objectives. Those involve the huge former VA hospital property on U.S. 90, the Gulfport Harbor, including Jones Park, the city's Sportsplex, Downtown, and the Ken Combs pier area. All of these areas were part of a series of art renderings prepared by hired renowned urban planner Andre' Duany and trumpeted by Warr as his vision for the city. It should be noted that all of these projects were determined by Warr without surveying the city's residents over what should be done.

Duany's renderings, however, are not yet detailed plans with architect design details and building plans or detailed cost estimates. Still, Warr has seen his city of the future in his mind, and has pursued his vision with vigor, even to the expense of Katrina recovery, utilizing city resources, manpower and time. (Photo right: Gulfport City Hall facia.)

But now, with more than three years into his administration, it appears that his plans will certainly not attain fruition within his current term in office, if at all.

First, the VA property is not yet in the city's hands. While Warr has over the last two years announced various times of the property's transfer, it has yet to happen. His latest estimate came at a director's meeting last month when he told his staff that the transfer might come in December. But more recently, he received what could be a major setback for his plan to commercially develop the VA property. Congressman Gene Taylor is seeking to add a provision to the transfer that would restrict the property to "public use only." And if the city fails to act properly on the utilization of the property, it would revert back to federal government.

GCN caught up with Congressman Taylor late last week and asked him why he was adding the restriction to the property.

"It is not about any individual, " said Taylor to GCN's Washington correspondent Perry Hicks. "As far as I am concerned that is hallowed ground. It was in Federal service a long time and so should at least remain as a public resource," Taylor added.

Interpretation: Taylor isn't making a slight to Warr, but he is concerned about the VA site being sold to developers. This commercial development has been outlined by Warr with the establishment of the Gulfport Development Commission. This same commission is believed to have been formed to continue the envisioned developments even if there is an administration and council change in next year's municipal elections. The commission was formed under the auspices of the laws dealing with urban renewal, but the commission's proposed activities are more similar to those of a development commission, which is illegal for cities to operate. The Mississippi Attorney General issued an opinion  recently requested by City Councilwoman Ella Holmes-Hines that said only counties can have development commissions.

Meanwhile, Warr's vision for the Harbor is beginning to run into issues too. Warr's plan calls for turning the Gulfport Harbor, Jones Park area into a completely different venue with fancy shops, an amphitheater and squirt park. The problem is that he hasn't included the community, especially the boating community into his plans.

Warr wants to eliminate the current heavily used boat launches and build a parking lot and new boat launch area east of the existing harbor bulkhead by extending the bulkhead farther toward the east . This is an unprecedented action as the area is in state control and could affect riparian rights of property owners to the north.  The plan also calls for dredging a new channel to the boat launches, a huge parking lot along a new east bulkhead, and a new jetty to protect the boat launch area. (Image: Below Left)

The first problem is that the beach has restrictions, by federal decree, and that that Warr's actions have drawn the attention of the Secretary of State, who, for the first time, has entered the sand beach control arena.

At a recent Board of Supervisor's meeting, Secretary of State Dilbert Hoseman told the supervisors that he is not in favor of any of the beach turning into a parking lot. A direct reference to Warr's plans. In fact, one parking lot that was part of Warr's plan at the northeast corner of  the beach near Jones Park was axed and is not longer part of the plan. Instead, additional parking is to be placed east of the 20th Ave. bulkhead.

The fact that the state has jurisdiction over the use of the tidelands area along the shoreline has long been understood, but never has the state asserted its control in the way that it is now beginning to do regarding the beach.

The beach is administered by the county and though the beach is within the city limits of the coastal cities, the cities have, by agreement with the county, only authority over licensing of beach venders. Years ago Harrison County created the Sand Beach Authority to oversee the beach and its maintenance. The county also assesses a sea-wall tax on gasoline to pay for the maintenance and beach replenishing.

To get a sense of what Gulfport can do, GCN contacted Bobbie Weaver, the Director of the Sand Beach Authority and Parkway Commission about Warr's plans. Weaver responded via email:

1. Can Gulfport build a parking lot and boat launch in that location without the approval of the county, and/or Secretary of State?

[Bobby Weaver]  The location of the proposed boat launch and parking lot according to the permit application is south of the beach template of 265' from the seawall seaward.. Therefore, the jurisdictional approval would be with the Secretary of State as building on or above State Tidelands. The County would have in interest in the review of said project for the purpose to ensure that the project would not interfere with our efforts to maintain the beach. 

2, Can the beach be developed by any city or property owner?

[ Bobby Weaver]  This is an issue that we are currently in discussions with the Secretary of States Office. In the past, the County has always when looking at constructing a parking lot or other permanent structure on the beach would seek concurrence with the Secretary of State before proceeding.

The current Secretary of State, Mr. Delbert Hoseman has expressed a desire to be more involved in the Beach, as to what may or may not be built.  We are in the process of developing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Secretary of State and the Harrison County Board of Supervisors and hope to have this resolved within a month or so.

I suppose that if a city was requesting for such a project and all parties agreed that it would be a public benefit and improve public access to the beach, it might be approved.

However, the issue with it being a property owner certainly casts a different shadow. In the past I believe the only thing we permitted would be a pier accessing the beach. It is my hope that the (MOU) would better answer this question.

3. Does Gulfport have the authority to apply for development permits on the beach, or, property they do not own or control?

[Bobby Weaver]  I am not sure the intent of this question. I'll assume that if the City wanted to build a project on the beach, they certainly have a right to request approval from both the Board of Supervisors and the Secretary of State. Again, the (MOU) will create a blueprint that would address this in more detail. 

In a later interview, by telephone, Weaver told GCN that the county is monitoring Gulfport's harbor expansion project. He said the city has not requested any action by the county and has has not applied to the county for any permit regarding the jetty extension project so far. "Although I am not sure they need to as the area is within the state's control," Weaver told GCN.

The city has applied for permits to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Mississippi Bureau of Marine Resources (BMR). BMR is to hold a hearing August 19 on whether to approve the city's application to build the parking lot, fill-in bottom land, build a jetty and more at the site east of harbor. (Image above right: Detail of Jetty Project, click on image to enlarge)

Still, the Warr Harbor plan has the attention of the Secretary of State and the plan has opened the door to some other matters as well.

If the state and federal regulators deny Warr's application to build his new boat ramps, his plan calls for the boat ramps that currently exist to be removed. Indeed, that almost happened recently when the company dredging the harbor inadvertently destroyed bulkheads immediately to the west of the existing boat launches in the harbor basin. Bulkheads that will be costly to replace. (Photo right shows damaged bulkhead)

As to how any of these developing problems will affect Warr's harbor plans, the mayor is on record saying that he will not make any changes. That was his position in a WLOX news story recently when it came to light that Warr's plan for the piers in the harbor would interfere with the operation of large boats, particularly the vessels operated by Ship Island Excursions, who's owner said that Warr's plans would be a problem for his boats.

It seems Warr's piers, at more than 900-feet in length, will interfere with the turn-around room needed for the large Ship Island excursion boats docked nearby.

The owner of the Ship Island ferry remains hopeful that Warr will change his plans and allow the maneuvering rooms for the Ship Island boats, however, the owner has indicated that he may move his operation eventually to Biloxi if the adjustments to not happen.

Meanwhile, the city has begun work to dredge the harbor, the first of a two-phase dredging operation that will last well into next year, all before any pilings for piers can be placed. In an unsightly side-effect to the dredging, the dredge muck is being deposited (Photo right) to a large area west of the new Coast Guard station to dry. The dirt will then be scraped up by heavy equipment and transported to an appropriate waste site owned by the Harrison County Development Commission.

But with the issues described earlier, there may be one big one on the horizon with far-reaching implications.

There are questions that GCN raised over a year ago regarding the actual ownership by Gulfport over the harbor and Jones Park. The state has official ownership of lands, including filled lands starting with the original shoreline as they existed when Mississippi first entered the union. The Secretary of State's office told GCN last year that they know this, and that they had yet to act on the state's ownership of the Gulfport Harbor/Jones Park area even though the property was on the state's map of fill-in lands..

Jones Park and the harbor were created years ago from filled-in land. The state legally can claim ownership of the fill-in land and require a lease with the city as it does with the city of Biloxi at Point Cadet, and with the casinos that operate from the shoreline. Whether the state acts on its ownership is still a question. GCN has contacted Hoseman's office recently about the state ownership issue but has yet to get a response. A lease though, between the city and the state could clear up title issues with the property and allow for more secure investment in the future. This would benefit Gulfport as it has done for Biloxi.

But there is a connected question to the land ownership issue that deals with the FEMA Katrina recovery money for the city regarding the harbor and Jones Park. That question is is how can FEMA provide funds for the harbor and Jones Park if the city is not the proper owner?

Some readers may wonder how such an issue with FEMA could even arise, after all, doesn't everyone know that Gulfport owns Jones Park and the harbor?  Well, its not that clear. FEMA's rules require they deal with the appropriate agency or property owner when administering their program. A good example came up with the ownership issue involving the former Gulfport Library. In that case, FEMA's rules required the city to give up the land that library sat upon, even though the library building was owned by the county. FEMA required the county to get full control of the property or FEMA would not pay to rebuild the damaged library at another location.

There are also questions that the Secretary of State will likely play a roll regarding Warr's plans for Duany-designed structures near the Ken Combs Pier. (Image-Right) The plans call for structures to be built on the beach as well.

Then there are the other projects Warr has envisioned. Details of the changes to the Sportsplex north of the I-10 are not so detailed, at least as revealed to the public so far.

Downtown, Warr has initiated a plan with downtown property owners to cover derelict empty buildings with attractive facades, to improve the look. Many Gulfport observers say that the Mayor seeks to make a Hollywood set out of downtown.

As it can be seen, the mayor's "Warrtopia," as it were, may not come to pass as envisioned.

*Updated Information:

Aug 20, 2008 - The Commission on Marine Resources approved the permit for the jetty work August 19, but the project is still pending review by the Department of Environmental Quality. It also has yet to be approved by the Corps of Engineers and the Mississippi Secretary of State may weigh-in on the project as well. The project involves using some materials taken from adjacent beachline, therefore keeping the net miles/acreage of waterbottoms the same.

More Information:

Gulfport Harbor Jetty Project Application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - .pdf file

Gulfport's Harbor Plan Squeezes Coast Guard - Sun Herald

Meeting on Harbor Draws Fire from Warr - Sun Herald

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