DMR to open bids on bringing down buildings at Ocean Springs Harbor

DMR will open demolition bids for property it bought for $3.6 million

klnelson@sunherald.comSeptember 26, 2013 

OCEAN SPRINGS -- The state Department of Marine Resources plans to open bids next week for the demolition of the Harbor Landing boat shed and restaurant -- vacant buildings at the Ocean Springs Harbor.

And people who live around the harbor and fought what they considered an intrusive business for years finally believe it will come down, probably by the end of the year.

The city lost its bid to have the state agency swap the property and buildings for land on Back Bay in order to save what Ocean Springs leaders thought could be a viable, revivable business at the harbor. After all, the shed holds 168 boats.

But the group of about 50, called Friends of the Ocean Springs Harbor, had already won a state Supreme Court decision upholding zoning at the harbor that could have kept the structures out.

Then the structures -- built by former Blossman YMCA Director David Harris and his family -- became the center of more than a local tussle. A 2012 federal audit by the Office of Inspector General questioned the DMR's purchase of Harbor Landing with $3.6 million in Coastal Impact Assistance Program money when the property was on the Jackson County tax rolls at a value of $1.3 million. The final version of that audit described "widespread conflicts of interest" involving land purchases the DMR oversaw.

But that aside, according to legal ads in the Sun Herald, the DMR will open bids

Oct. 2 at its state office building on Back Bay. If all goes as planned, it will select a contractor for the Harbor Landing buildings' demolition and removal.

"So, it appears that the buildings may be down by the end of the calendar year and restoration of the site can begin in earnest," said Bruce Duckett in a recent email to fellow harbor Friends. "What ultimate 'public uses' will be allowed is a bit up for grabs but, the deed restrictions are pretty well defined. So, I'm optimistic for a good outcome for Ocean Springs."

Duckett said he spoke to three DMR officials, including Director Jamie Miller, and he was assured the structures would be removed.

It's been a long fight, he said, going back to early 2005.

Jackson County owns and maintains the harbor, and county Supervisor Troy Ross said Thursday he believes the property under the boat shed will be preserved as green space. The more than half-dozen boat slips under the restaurant cannot be used for profit, he said.

Ross said he believes when the boat shed comes down, the grant the DMR used to buy it will require the land be returned to its natural state.

"So right now," he said, "we just have to let it sit there and be a grassy area."

The city and county got together about the possibility of turning the space into much-needed parking, but unfortunately, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service won't let it be used for that, Ross said.

He and Supervisor John McKay both said they hope federal rules could be loosened and that the property can eventually be parking.

In the meantime, the city and county have a plan to improve the area south of Harbor Landing.

Ocean Springs has state Tidelands funds, roughly $736,000, to move Harbor Road, south of the Harbor Landing boat shed, farther west in a way that cuts off the turn north from Front Beach Drive and gives boaters more room at the four county boat launches at the harbor.

Ross said by shifting the road to the west, drivers will be able to deliver a boat without holding up traffic on Harbor Road.

It's a project that has evolved, Ross said, from plans Mayor Connie Moran presented to the county that included other improvements to the harbor -- decorative lighting, benches, sidewalks and parking.

The county will help with securing the leases needed on land to the west and will participate with the road construction, Ross said.

"I expect it to start in about a year," he said.

Moran sees other possibilities for the boat-shed land, about 1.7 acres.

"The Board of Aldermen voted several months ago to consider in the plans a green area to be named in honor of the late Dr. Thomas McIIwain, who served on the Harbor Commission and at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory. So perhaps this space could serve for that purpose," Moran said. "CIAP guidelines, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, would prefer that DMR allow the space to grow back into natural woods, but a low-impact use such as a green area with some native vegetation that could be used for occasional events like fishing rodeos or 'Smokin' the Sound' would be acceptable."

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