Olive branch approach replaces boxing gloves
Skeleton crews from the city councils of Biloxi and Gulfport have met in the first of what they hope is a series of meetings designed to resolve a longstanding dispute over which city has the right to annex property in the vicinity of Highway 605.
The property ostensibly will be the site of a residential development, and was set to be taken in by Gulfport until a Harrison County chancellor on June 22 threw out the city’s annexation case, citing the city’s decision to change location and construction details of the subdivision’s water and sewer infrastructure in the middle of the trial, after the discovery phase had ended. With or without the subdivision, each city agrees the property is primed for some type of development, and would mean substantial revenue, though neither side had figures.
With the court proceedings halted, each side agreed to at least a temporary truce to the legal wrangling. Starting with last week’s meeting, three members from each council will meet the second Tuesday of every month in an effort to arrive at an agreement without expensive litigation.
“We tend to get stuff second-hand,” said Biloxi City Council president Clark Griffith, explaining the reason behind the meetings. “There is not a forum, and that is what we set up (Tuesday), a forum where can talk directly with another. We are not making any decisions, but it provides a forum for useful discussion.”
Said Gulfport City Council president Ricky Dombrowski: “We decided we should at least sit down and talk about it to see if we could come up with a resolution.”
The initial reviews were heavy on optimism, but both sides agreed there remains work to do.
The biggest roadblock is how much land on either side of the Biloxi River either city will be willing to let the other take. The river, which runs northwest from the coastline to U.S. 49 in northern Harrison County, has historically served as a natural boundary separating the two cities. Prior administrations from each city, Dombrowski said, have had handshake agreements that kept one city from crossing the river into the other.
Using the talks to reach an agreement on growth paths that can be taken back to the full councils and voted upon will eliminate the legal confusion that dogged the latest round of annexation litigation.
“We’re going to put the lines in our land plan, put it in writing eventually and filed in our (council) minutes,” Dombrowski said. “Then you’ve got a little more teeth in it. That’s the direction we’re going.”
An ideal solution for Gulfport, he added, would have to include crossing the river somewhere, most likely in the vicinity of Highway 605.
“We don’t want to be cut off on our growth path. And if you look at the Biloxi River, we’ll never agree to (not crossing it at some point). Giving that up would totally cut us off from any kind of growth.”
Griffith said Gulfport coming across the river at some point would be agreeable, but it would have to be farther north than the 605 area. He pointed to Gulfport’s past annexation of the Orange Grove area, when the city stopped on the banks of the Biloxi River, the same way Biloxi stopped at the river when it annexed Woolmarket. “That’s been the natural boundary of the two cities. At this point, to take away some of the things that have already been adjudicated in prior annexations and to go across the Biloxi River and take part of Biloxi is non-negotiable because that’s already been negotiated.”
Griffith pointed to the criteria the Mississippi Supreme Court has established as criteria for annexation: city land adjoining the proposed site, established infrastructure and overlapping property. Biloxi, Griffith said, meets all of those requirements in the 605 vicinity. Gulfport, he added, does not.
Asked if he agreed with that, Dombrowski demurred. “I don’t really want to get in the legal arguments. I think we probably could say that we meet them, too. But that’s the sticking area. We have to decide whether we want to give up 605 or if that’s going to be a battle we’ll continue to fight.
“What I wanted out of the meeting we got. We didn’t slam the door on each other and scream and holler, and we agreed to another meeting. We are pretty far apart from each other, but we left with positive vibes on both sides.”
“You can never have a compromise if you never even propose one,” Griffith said. “Neighbors working together always make better neighbors.”