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MDOT going forward with land purchase

MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST — Court challenges are pending, but the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) is moving ahead with plans to buy 1,638 acres south of Interstate 10 and turn it over to state and nonprofit groups for permanent conservation.

The environmental agreement MDOT reached with federal agencies would forever end proposals for commercial development just south of I-10 between U.S. 49 and Canal Road. The agreement also would allow MDOT to go forward with construction of a state port connector road from I-10 to U.S. 90, a route crucial to the port’s plans for expansion.

The road would destroy 162 acres of wetlands. In exchange, MDOT plans to buy and place 1,638 acres in perpetual conservation easements. The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources would own the land, but about 447 acres on both sides of Turkey Creek would be managed by a nonprofit, the Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain.

The Turkey Creek watershed stretches from Gulfport Lake into Long Beach.

While Turkey Creek advocates are thrilled with the conservation easement, Gulfport Mayor George Schloegel said there has to be a less extreme solution.

“For the City of Gulfport to have over 1,000 acres taken off its tax rolls in perpetuity would be devastating to say the least,” Schloegel said. “When we are fighting budget constraints each day, to lose that kind of revenue that is badly needed to pay our employees’ salaries — public works, public safety, etc. — is of great concern.”

Schloegel said the Ward family, who owns about 1,000 acres of the land, had plans to open Creosote Road south of I-10 from Prime Outlets west to Canal Road.

He believes MDOT could compensate for the 162 acres being lost to the road without giving up so much valuable real estate.

MDOT plans to solicit bids in April to clear land south of I-10 for the first phase of construction on the four-lane, limited access highway. MDOT chief engineer Melinda McGrath said work should begin in early June.

The road has long been on the drawing board, as have Louisiana developer Butch Ward’s plans for the property MDOT is trying to take through an eminent domain lawsuit in Harrison County Court. Ward companies also are suing MDOT in Harrison County Circuit Court and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in federal court.

The Army Corps and Environmental Protection Agency have signed off on the conservation easements. MDOT is in the process of acquiring smaller parcels from property owners within the area.

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