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Janus Touts Sewer Project: Opponents Fear Land Grab

June 21, 2008

By Michael Newsom, The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss.

Jun. 21–GULFPORT — Some legislators say “quick take” is a dirty phrase.

The governing board of a massive post-Katrina water and sewer project wants legal authority to require South Mississippi property owners to turn over rights of way in an effort to speed up the project. But House Bill 6, sponsored by House Speaker Pro Tem J.P. Compretta, D-Bay St. Louis, which would give the board that power, is stalled in a House committee in an ongoing special session.

The measure has an image problem, because it’s called the “quick take” bill, supporters say. They say the name leads residents to think the plan could morph into an out of control land grab.

“I have coined the term ‘expedited easement program,’

” state Rep. Michael Janus, R-Biloxi, said Friday.

Janus, who said he wants to change the perception of the bill, gathered South Mississippi legislators to try to bridge differences over the measure. Janus has proposed inserting language into the bill that would make it only usable for small easements and not whole parcels. If the existing bill were to pass, it could technically be used to take a whole parcel to build a water tank, or other large facility.

Local governments, the Mississippi Department of Transportation and a few other entities already have quick-take powers. The bill gives authority to lay pipes on private land, and the owners would only be able to contest the amount they are paid, which is to be the appraised value. Landowners would be required to turn over the sections of property.

Some worry that under the plan, some county utility authority’s governing boards have members who aren’t elected officials and they would not be accountable to voters. Of the five counties involved in the project, only Harrison County’s board is comprised of elected officials. Hancock, Stone, Jackson and Pearl River counties all have at least some non-elected board members.

At a meeting on the bill Friday, business leader Jerry St. Pe’ said the new infrastructure is crucial, especially for Jackson County, because it would allow more housing. St. Pe’ said many who work in Jackson County drive from out of state, and many new manufacturing jobs are on the way in Alabama, which could convince many commuters to work closer to home.

As part of the $640 million federally funded plan, about 600 miles of new water and sewer lines are to be installed. The work is aimed at bringing water and sewer infrastructure to places that were using septic tanks before Katrina. Elected officials hope to make the areas better able to handle the post-storm population shift to north of Interstate 10.

So far almost none of the work has been started. There are no rules in the program that say the funding would be revoked if deadlines were missed. But some fear that if the deadline passes and some projects are incomplete, that some of the previously earmarked funding could be withheld under political pressure, especially if there’s the perception not enough progress has been made.

Janus

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss.

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