The City of Gulfport has closed Beach Drive, a small right of way that runs between Clam Bayou and a private property, because of a private dock that poses safety concerns. Some homeowners want the City to turn the land over to them, while others want it to remain open to the public.
Gulfport officials are taking what they say are routine steps to change the status of some undeveloped land on the eastern edge of town, although some have expressed dismay.
Gulfport’s Site Plan Review Committee met Aug. 5 and discussed three applications from residents on 44th Street South and Quincy Street South, to the northeast of Clam Bayou, to vacate sections of right-of-way along the southern ends of those streets on Beach Drive. The committee recommended to forward the requests to the Planning and Zoning Board for further consideration and the first of three required public hearings, possibly concluding with Council action in November.
Community Development Director Fred Metcalf told The Gabber that no one has ever used Beach Drive as a road or maintained it, although it’s existed for years.
“You can’t even get through most of it,” said Metcalf. “At high tide it is under water. It’s full of mangroves, pepper trees and overgrown vegetation. It basically hasn’t been used by anyone except maybe the people who live adjacent to it. Three of them have put forth applications to ask for it to be vacated.”
If Council ultimately approves the applications, the land would go on the tax rolls as parts of the applicants’ properties adjacent to it; the property owners will not pay for the land. Metcalf noted that residents routinely ask the City to vacate right-of-way or easements for a variety of reasons.
“It’s not like it’s some kind of public water access way,” he said in reference to the properties in question. “There are plenty of access ways fairly close to there for someone to put their kayak or canoe in.”
Whatever the result, there will be portions of land near the water that the City will not vacate, including the southern ends of both 44th and Quincy, according to Metcalf. There is also an alley that runs north-south between those two streets.
The City of Gulfport did close the right of way due to safety concerns, but Nicholls says the property owner who wants the City to vacate the land put up the fence and the private property sign which, he notes, it is not.
One of the property owners on that alley is Paul Herman, who issued a press release in early August on behalf of the Shoreline for All Committee titled, “Gulfport City Council moves forward on land-grab scheme near Clam Bayou.”
Herman alleged that the action now under consideration is essentially a transfer of public land to private interests without due process. He noted the fencing, locks and “no trespassing” signs along the right-of-way that he said are keeping citizens from access to the water.
Metcalf said that, to his knowledge, Herman is the only person who has expressed concerns to the City about the issue.
Herman said that the Site Plan Review Committee refused to accept public comment even though about 10 citizens were there for that purpose. Metcalf said that the committee consists solely of staff and public comment is not given at its meetings.
Whether or not this right-of-way remains publicly owned will ultimately get decided by Gulfport City Council.
“It would take one hearing in front of the Planning and Zoning Board, which would then make a recommendation to the City Council,” he said of the process. “The council has to read an ordinance, so there are two hearings for the ordinance. It’s not like we are doing something in the dark.”
Herman also said vacation of these properties would, according to the City’s charter, require a voter referendum. He cited these statements from Article 1, Section 103 of the charter: “No real property interest held by the city, as of the date of the adoption of this Charter revision, which provides park, beach or recreational lands or beach access or submerged lands, shall be sold, traded, given away, vacated, or alienated in any way, except after a referendum approval of the city’s electorate. … The affirmative vote of a minimum of four (4) city council members shall be necessary to establish a referendum election concerning the disposal of properties pursuant to this section.”
Metcalf said that the Gulfport’s legal counsel does not agree with Herman’s interpretation.
“There is not anything in our charter that would require that,” he said. “It is not an access point. It is not a beach. It does not fall within the section that Mr. Herman keeps quoting.”
Herman is suing the City to reopen public access. Read a copy of his suit, and other details Herman has posted about this entire issue, at beachdriveonclambayou.wordpress.com.
The remaining schedule is tentative, but the Planning and Zoning Board could hear the matter Oct. 5 with subsequent hearings before the City Council Oct. 18 and Nov. 1.
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