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Legal maneuvers keep Ocean Springs development on hold for years

Updated: Feb. 5, 2021 at 7:59 PM CST
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OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. (WLOX) - “When I tell this story, people don’t believe it.” That is how Michael Butler, owner of Butler Homes described his tale of trying to build on a prime piece of real estate on Front Beach in Ocean Springs.

This piece of property has been empty since Hurricane Katrina destroyed the two apartment complexes on it in 2005. In 2015, Butler joined together with property owner Lee Brumfield to build a series of townhouses.

“And the city planners went back and forth and they discussed it and they figured it out and they said yes, this will fit within the zoning,” Butler said on Friday.

With the city’s blessing, Butler put in more than $1 million of infrastructure and began construction in 2018. Then a group of neighbors sued. A circuit court judge sided with the neighbors, saying the city had erred in allowing the development. A stop-work order was issued.

“It’s zoned for multi-family,” Butler said. “There were 112 units on it prior, so we could have easily come out and built an apartment complex at the outset. But we didn’t want to do that, we wanted to build something that was beautiful. We wanted to build something that would fit better in the community.”

The Sands at Front Beach is proposed to have 41 single-family units. Butler said even though they are elevated, each structure would look like a four-story building, not something on stilts. He said there would be $500,000 of landscaping to enhance the property. The development would add $30 million to the tax rolls.

The city adopted a Unified Development Code in April 2019, which changed the zoning to allow for “Medium to high-density residential district. Allows 8-12 du/acre. Includes a variety of smaller lot detached and attached dwelling types, including cottages, duplexes, townhomes. May be incorporated into a mixed-use structure.”

Two of 41 planned structures have been built at the intersection of Front Beach and Martin...
Two of 41 planned structures have been built at the intersection of Front Beach and Martin Avenue in Ocean Springs.(John Fitzhugh)

Butler had completed the two structures he had begun at the intersection of Front Beach and Martin Avenue. Since then, nothing has happened on the property, but it got busier in the courts.

The neighbors sued again, filing three suits in 2019, appealing the city’s original decision, and objecting to the adoption of the Unified Development Code. Those suits were consolidated into one this week. The records for that suit include 8,060 pages of documents, plus audio recordings.

“Every single thing we do here, they appeal on,” Butler said with rising frustration in his voice. “Basically you’re telling me that a guy can’t build on a property that he owns because you don’t want him to? Because you’ve got enough money to stop him?”

The City of Ocean Springs would not comment on this story because of the ongoing litigation. Neither would the lead complainant in the suit, Michael Illanne, or his attorney, Leonard Blackwell.

Meanwhile, the property and the project sit in limbo.

“At the end of the day, we just want to build whatever we’re allowed to build,” Butler said. “It’s been in the court system too long. This has got to stop. This thing has gone on way too long.”

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