Harrison County

Lawsuit's back on over Ward property in North Gulfport

GULFPORT -- A circuit judge erred when he dismissed a lawsuit North Gulfport developers had filed against the Mississippi Highway Commission over the loss of their land, known as the Ward property, for a planned state port connector road.

The Highway Commission governs the Mississippi Transportation Department, which proposed conserving 1,600 acres in exchange for filling 162 acres of wetlands in the Turkey Creek watershed for the road. Louisiana brothers Jerard and Jason Ward, through limited partnerships, own 1,300 of the total acreage the state intended to take through eminent domain.

The property sits in the city's commercial corridor near Interstate 10 at U.S. 49.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted the Highway Department a permit to fill wetlands for the road in exchange for the promised conservation easement.

A federal judge revoked the permit in 2012, ruling the Corps of Engineers acted "arbitrarily and capriciously," without an environmental review, in issuing the permit for road construction.

The Wards filed a lawsuit in state Circuit Court that seeks compensation for lost development opportunities while their land was tied up by the construction permit from 2009 through 2012.

Circuit Judge Larry Bourgeois dismissed the lawsuit, finding, in part, the land was not permanently taken.

The state's high court said the case should have gone to trial. Even though the federal court ruling invalidated the permit, it was intended as a permanent taking of the Ward's property, the state Supreme Court found. The court said the Wards are entitled to present evidence that the Highway Commission proposed the deal and the Wards lost money as a result.

"Evidence in the record shows that Ward was deprived of all economically viable use of the property during the time the permit was in effect," the court opinion says. "Ward's designated expert appraiser was expected to testify that Ward had suffered damages for the three years during which the permit was in effect."

Meanwhile, construction remains at a standstill on a road to connect the expanding Port of Gulfport and Interstate 10. Kelly Castleberry, MDOT district engineer, said MDOT has not submitted a new environmental plan to the corps. When it does, federal review could take years.

The Wards in July filed a permit request with the corps to develop 524 acres of the property, most of it forested wetlands. They are proposing a campus-style development with shops, offices, industry, a town center, public trails and access to Turkey Creek.

The Wards say their plan, which includes stormwater-management measures, addresses the community's long-time concerns that development of the property will contribute to flooding.