Harrison County starts new parking lot at Ohr-O'Keefe without permits

County begins parking lot at Ohr-O'Keefe without permits

Sun HeraldJune 26, 2014 

BILOXI -- A Biloxi building official said the county didn't file for a permit or ask the city for permission before a crew started digging a new parking lot this week at the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art.

The city issued a stop-work order Wednesday for the site. Community Development Director Jerry Creel said it is an environmentally sensitive and historic area where projects need a variety of approvals.

Creel said an Ohr Museum board member called a month ago to see if the county "could do a little digging on the site." Creel said he told the board not to dig without the necessary reviews.

Harrison County Supervisor Windy Swetman III is spearheading a new senior center at the museum, which will be part of the county's Senior Services Agency.

He estimated the startup cost for the senior center at about $15,000.

"We spent those dollars from District 1, from the escrow account," he said.

He said the total annual cost of about $45,000 to $50,000, including utilities and a county program coordinator, has been allocated for senior services, and will not come from the escrow account.

Swetman said Thursday he did not know if the proper permits had been obtained, but that the project manager will meet with the city today.

"Never has the county been asked to obtain a permit from the city in the past to do work on city property," he said. "That's kind of the norm."

Creel said every construction project in Biloxi needs approvals -- even city projects such as the new baseball stadium. The new parking lot should have gone to the Development Review Committee, which looks at drainage plans, and the Architectural and Historical Review Board, he said.

It also would need approvals from the state Department of Transportation for its connection to the service road along U.S. 90.

The area is also a probable burial ground for Native Americans and settlers. Officials learned about that when the Biloxi Maritime and Seafood Museum was proposed for the adjacent site.

Swetman said the issue with the city was procedural, and that the crew only scraped away 8 to 12 inches of dirt and filled it back with limestone. "There's got to come

a time when good common sense comes into play and I believe that's how our project manager was proceeding forward," he said.

He also said the parking lot will make the museum more inviting to tourists.

"It looks like the back of the campus faces the beach," he said. "It's not real inviting."

In April, museum Executive Director Kevin O'Brien said the board was working to make the south side of the property more appealing. Representatives of architect Frank Gehry had also approved parallel parking there, O'Brien said.

The board's construction committee had approved the parking lot, O'Brien said Thursday.

Swetman said the senior center would increase community engagement with the museum, which has been a struggle, and make it more "productive" for the county and taxpayers.

The senior center will be on the second floor of the Center for Ceramics and offer activities such as crafts, ceramics, games, bingo, field trips and luncheons. Beginning Monday, it will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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