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Land Trust preserving open spaces, green places

Biloxi — Population growth and development are drawn to the most beautiful locales with the sad irony that those locales can be destroyed in the process. Open spaces and green places — so vitally important to the human psyche — contribute immeasurably to quality of life. Facing continued growth and development, the state’s six southernmost counties organized the Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain three years ago.

The 150-member organization has a mission to conserve, promote and protect the open spaces and green places of ecological, cultural or scenic significance in the counties of the Mississippi Coastal Plain. Land trusts have been around in other parts of the country since the 1700s, beginning with the creation of the Boston Common.

According to M.O. Lawrence, board president, it’s an old concept but new to South Mississippi. There are three or four land trusts in the state, but this one is the only one focusing on the six coastal counties.

“The Nature Conservancy was instrumental in getting people together for community environmental and economic dialogue because there was some concern about unregulated growth in our area and lack of zoning in the county,” he said. “It seemed to be full speed ahead and damn the consequences.”

Lawrence, senior vice president and senior trust officer of Peoples Bank of Biloxi, said most of the growth was occurring in Biloxi so a group called Biloxi’s Future Now was formed. Public forums were held to address the concerns and what could be done about them. That group led to the formation of the Land Trust.

“Everyone wants to have good air to breathe and to be able to swim in the water,” he said, “but no one was preserving green spaces.”

He credits Chevron Pascagoula Refinery, fueled by public expression, with getting the ball rolling to form the Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain. Judy Steckler, full-time director of the Land Trust, also cites the City of Biloxi for providing office space and other government entities and corporate sponsors for their cooperation and support. A number of them are providing services and funds.
Land can be preserved for future generations through donation, conservation easements and sale to the Land Trust.

The organization presently has a total of 386 acres in ownership or easements. There are sites in all of the counties except Stone and Pearl River, but negotiations are currently underway to obtain sites there.

The Land Trust can purchase land outright when funds are available or landowners can make direct gifts. Either way, the landowner gets a tax advantage and the public has access. Other options for control of the land include conservation easements and life estates. With an easement, the owner retains ownership but gives up the development rights, ensuring that the land will always remain in an environmentally-friendly state. The development rights are transferred to the Land Trust. With a life estate, the owner remains on the land until death, and only then does the public have access to the property.

With a non-profit, tax exempt status from the IRS, the Land Trust is eligible to receive grants and funds from government and corporate sources.

“Our organization can hold small pockets of land to maintain the eco-system and environment to fulfill all the roles this land can play,” Steckler said. “We’re helping cities and counties meet their EPA standards and playing an important role in the community.”

Steckler stressed that the Land Trust is not in opposition to economic development and feels the organization can work with developers to have a balance.

“It’s real important to coastal Mississippi to preserve our quality of life. We need open spaces and green places to enjoy and to continue to have smart growth so people will want to visit and live here,” she said. “Ocean Springs is a good example of that. It’s very popular for home ownership and tourists but if we continue to develop all of the area, that quality will be lost.”

She said she thought the trust would have to work at identifying land that could be acquired but that has not been true. People have come to the Land Trust because they love their land and want it to be preserved.

“We don’t want the public to feel we’re taking land,” Steckler said. “We want it to be enjoyed and eco-tourism is a way for that to happen. We work hand in hand with eco- tourism partners in the six counties.”

An example of partnering with eco- tourism is a log cabin and easement of 30 acres of surrounding land that are being acquired in Pearl River County. Located near the scenic Wolfe River, an easement is also planned to join a trail from the river to the cabin.

“This will be an opportunity to tell the history of the timber industry that was important to the area,” she explained. “With this action, development will not encroach and citizens can join in and use the area for eco tourism.”

Lawrence said the first piece of land acquired by the Land Trust was a donation of 150 acres in the Latimer community of Jackson County. “Smart developers Jessie Adcock and Claude Johnson decided that because the property had some wetlands, the highest and best use for it was to keep it natural,” he said.

The Land Trust recently purchased Cedar Lake Island in the Tchoufacabouffa River in Harrison County. The public will have access to this 45-acre island that is being developed as an outdoor classroom. Steckler said it has already been used by Boy Scouts and 4-H Clubs.

The group has a conservation easement for 18 acres in a residential area on the Escatawpa River in Jackson County. They hope to receive grants to turn this acreage into an urban garden area.

In Lucedale, Mayor Dayton Whites, a retired physician, was instrumental in developing a 30-acre greenway through the town. Depot Creek, a waterway that would be great to teach kids the joy of fishing, runs through the center of the property. Donations by the Luce family and the town, along with purchases by the Land Trust created the greenway. Whites said Singing River EPA and Mississippi Power are contributing and he is hoping to receive an enhancement grant to fully develop the area for residents and visitors.

“It will take several years to get it all done, but I hope we can have piers for fishing, a handicap-accessible walking track, a treetop walk and outdoor classroom,” he said. “I want to make Lucedale the prettiest town in South Mississippi, an ideal place to live and visit.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.


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