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Court to rule in beach ownership dispute

OCEAN SPRINGS — State and local officials are awaiting a court ruling on who owns East Beach in Ocean Springs — waterfront property owners or taxpayers.

A project to build a 3,470-foot-long, 6-1/2-foot-wide sidewalk was halted when residents Judge Neil Harris and Buddy Gunn challenged the project in a Hinds County Chancery Court.

The suit was filed in Hinds County because Secretary of State Delbert Hoseman and the state Department of Marine Resources have issued permits for the work.

Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran said the landowners also filed suit in Jackson County Chancery Court. The city faces a May deadline to begin the project or possibly lose funding, she said.

The city received $540,000 in federal stimulus money for the sidewalk.

Hosemann said “everything from the seawall belongs to the citizens of Mississippi.”

The project improves public safety on the beach and access, he said.

“The safety concerns are in addition to the culture of the coast where people are used to having access to their beaches and water,” he said.

Moran said the beach is public land owned by taxpayers.

“Judge Neil Harris and Buddy Gunn are contending they actually own the beach in front of their homes,” said Moran. “Even though taxpayers have paid to replenish the sand and maintain the beach and have used the beach for decades.”

Moran said “everyone” agrees the property owners have littoral rights, such as building piers, from the shoreline to about 400 feet into the water.

“This is a public beach,” said Moran. “It has been zoned public since 1972. The county, Jackson County, has maintained the beach for decades.”

John Corlew, an attorney representing the property owners, said the secretary of state’s authority is over tidelands.

“The law defines tidelands as lands daily covered and uncovered by the action of the tide,” he said. “On East Beach, if you go down and look at where the mean high water mark is, it is on the end of the Gulf Coast Research Lab pier. It is out in the waters of Davis Bayou.”

Maps from the secretary of state back the contention the property is now tidelands, he said.

Corlew said even though there are tidelands involved, the secretary of state should have allowed input from neighboring residents before issuing a permit.

Corlew said another point argued in court is the secretary of state is required to preserve the lands in their natural state.

Hosemann said challenges to the state ownership of beaches are frequently made.

“This has happened many times down there every time we need to be careful and I intend to fight it every single time,” he said.

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