Harrison County

Old trees and burial sites stir emotions at Biloxi council meeting

Two branches of the George Wallace tree in Biloxi were cut as the site is prepared for construction of a LaQuinta hotel.
Two branches of the George Wallace tree in Biloxi were cut as the site is prepared for construction of a LaQuinta hotel. The George Wallace oak tree as it looked before branches were cut as construction begins for a LaQuinta hotel.

The city has run out of space for residents to be buried, so despite complaints from nearby residents, the Biloxi Council voted to hear more about a plan to extend a portion of the Biloxi Cemetery north of the railroad tracks.

“When I first heard mausoleum I was automatically against it,” Councilman Robert Deming III said at Tuesday’s council meeting. But once he spoke with Ronnie Barker, who owns five lots at the corner of Robertson Street, Deming said he wants to see pictures and know more about the plans.

The council voted 4-2 to table the request for conditional use, with Deming, Felix Gines, Dixie Newman and Nathan Barrett voting to table for two weeks and George Lawrence and Kenny Glavan opposed. Paul Tisdale recused himself from the discussion.

Barker was raised adjacent to the cemetery in Biloxi. He traveled all over the United States selling mausoleums, he told the council, and now wants to build them at home. About 16 years ago he started purchasing properties in the neighborhood where he was raised and said he wants to invest $500,000, with two buildings in each of the first two phases.

Lawrence argued that the neighborhood will totally change. “You look out your back door you’re looking at a mausoleum,” he said.

Glavan supported Lawrence, saying whether it’s a homeless shelter or a mausoleum, the council members represent the people who live in that area.

But Barrett asked, “Is it true that the city of Biloxi is pretty much out of burial space?” While Biloxi is sending residents to other cities to be buried, he said, these neighbors already have a cemetery in their back yard.

Robertson Street is immediately north of the railroad tracks and is a dead-end street with entrances to the cemetery. Residential homes are on both sides of Bayly Street and Barkers’ properties are mostly tree-covered, blocking the view of the cemetery from the homes.

Biloxi Community Development Director Jerry Creel said this cemetery extension would be accessed through the existing cemetery and not from the residential street. Barker is asking for conditional use, Creel said, and the council can require a fence or landscape buffet between the residences and the mausoleums.

The cemetery was one of several contentious issues at Tuesday’s meeting along with:

▪  Lawrence demanded to know why branches were cut on the 500-year-old George Wallace tree to make room for a La Quinta hotel under construction on U.S. 90 at Hopkins Street. Lawrence said he and others have spent years trying to save the stately oak tree that has about a dozen main sections coming out of a single trunk, and he said it was “butchered.”

The tree was named for George Wallace (or Wallis) who grew up in the shadow of the tree and became a well-known doctor in Biloxi, said Vincent Creel, Biloxi public affairs director. The developers sited the hotel to keep most of the protected trees on the property.

Jerry Creel told the council he met with the property owners, tree surgeon and general contractor at the site before any branches were removed. One branch was cut on a tree close to Hopkins for fire truck access, he said, and a low-hanging branch on the George Wallace tree was cut to accommodate parking. “The trees were cut back to a node, which is where you cut limbs back to,” Creel said.

▪  Gines directed that representatives from Oscar Renda present a status report and timeline at the Sept. 5 meeting for completing the north infrastructure contract. With a series of change orders required, the project should be completed by Nov. 21, 2018.

▪  Glavan requested information about creating incentives to get homes rebuilt in the city 12 years after Hurricane Katrina. Jerry Creel said Gulfport has a new home ordinance that is very similar to Biloxi’s commercial incentive. Current land and school taxes have to be paid, he said, and the tax abatement is only on improved value and for up to seven years. In Gulfport, the minimum value for homes that front Beach Boulevard is $400,000 to qualify for the maximum abatement.

“We’ve already got a housing boom in Biloxi,” Creel said, with more than 100 homes under construction and five on Beach Boulevard or just off. He said there are 35 vacant lots on Beach Boulevard, all of which are in the flood zone and have to be elevated, along with hundreds of vacant lots in East Biloxi.

Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich said the federal and state emergency management agencies discourage building in many places, and much more conversation needs to happen before Biloxi decides on housing incentives.