OCEAN SPRINGS, MS (WLOX) - We have new developments in the battle over who owns portions of East Beach in Ocean Springs: The state or property owners across from the beach.
A judge has concluded East Beach is public property, not private property as two adjacent landowners claim.
An opinion issued by Chancellor Hollis McGehee concluded the East Beach land is held in trust by the state "for the use and benefit of the people of the State of Mississippi." The judge's opinion will be used to issue a final judgment in a legal battle that began seven years ago.
In 2009, the City of Ocean Springs received a lease from the secretary of state's office to build a sidewalk along East Beach. Homeowners fought back, and the case ended up in court.
A portion of East Beach is across from attorney Buddy Gunn's home. He and his neighbor, Jackson County Chancellor Neil Harris, went to court to stop the project and settle the ownership question.
After years of legal wrangling that included the Mississippi Supreme Court sending the case back to Chancery Court, a trial took place in May.
In his opinion, McGehee pointed to testimony about the public access and use of the East Beach area for more than 50 years. He noted that the Gunn and Harris acknowledged those points.
"The evidence from every single witness and the substantial body of documentary evidence establishes beyond any reasonable doubt that, to the extent there might exist any right of the plaintiffs south of the existing seawall, such rights, which the court specifically find do not exist south of the seawall, are completely overcome by the continual, frequent, daily, use by the public and maintenance by the public entities of the city and county for well in excess of 50 years.
Ocean Springs City Attorney Robert Wilkinson is pleased with the opinion.
"The judge ruled that the beach is tidelands and the state is the trustee for the public. The city's point was that the public has been using it for 50 years," Wilkinson said.
Gunn said since the judge has not issued a final ruling, it's premature to comment. Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann's Office also declined to comment at this time.