UPDATE: Fight over Biloxi pier construction not over; SOS appeals to higher court

Published: Oct. 5, 2021 at 3:10 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 7, 2021 at 4:23 PM CDT
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BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - A lawsuit filed to block the construction of a public pier in Biloxi was dismissed in court this week, but an appeal by the Secretary of State’s Office means the fight isn’t over. Thursday, Sec. Michael Watson asked the Mississippi Supreme Court to intervene.

In a ruling filed Monday, Harrison County Chancery Court Judge Jennifer Schloegel said Biloxi and Harrison County are within their rights to construct a public pier at Veterans Avenue without a tidelands lease from the Secretary of State.

The Secretary of State’s office had sued over a plan by Biloxi and Harrison County to lease property at Veterans Avenue to RW Development for construction of a municipal pier for public use. The lawsuit claimed a tidelands lease was required for the pier and that the office is in charge of the sand beach, not the Harrison County Board of Supervisors.

A public pier had been at the Veterans Avenue site for years before being destroyed by a hurricane.

“The Court further finds that municipal piers and harbors have been constructed within the City for many decades without the requirement of a tidelands lease from the Secretary,” Schloegel wrote in her 19-page ruling. “The State has acquiesced for many decades in the use of these Tidelands for these higher public purposes without having or requiring a tidelands lease from the Secretary, and, accordingly, the State is estopped from asserting that a tidelands lease is now necessary to act in furtherance of the higher public purposes of the Trust.”

Thursday’s statement from the Secretary of State’s Office said this week’s ruling was inconsistent with existing law and prior court decisions.

In a statement, Secretary of State Michael Watson said, “I am disappointed in the recent ruling and on Tuesday filed an appeal requesting a review of this decision before the Mississippi Supreme Court. I grew up on the Coast, want to see it prosper as much as anyone, and offered a rent-exempt lease for this project that was rejected. The legislature named the Secretary of State as Trustee of the state’s Public Trust Tidelands to protect the interest of all three million Mississippi citizens in state-owned property along the Coast. All agencies and governing bodies should abide by the laws governing the use of state-held lands as written by the legislature. I believe the recent ruling is inconsistent with existing law and prior court decisions; therefore, it is my sworn duty as Trustee to ask the Mississippi Supreme Court to have the final say.”

After Monday’s ruling, RW Development was making plans to finalize the detailed design of the pier, create construction documents and begin the permitting process with the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources. Under the terms of the lease RW has with the city and county, the company would be responsible for constructing and maintaining the public pier.

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