Why a Gulf wetlands may become a city
Hurricane Katrina battered Bay St. Louis, Miss. Now, developers plan a condo city nearby.
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US wetlands policy since 1988 has been to require developers who build on wetlands to mitigate the loss by creating or restoring wetlands elsewhere. But the overall goal of "no net loss" is failing, despite agencies' creation of tens of thousands of wetland acreage each year. The National Wetlands Inventory, by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, estimates that nearly 60,000 acres of wetlands are lost annually and that up to 80 percent of developers' mitigation projects fail. In Mississippi alone, the Army Corps is trying to restore some 3,000 acres of wetlands weakened by hurricane Katrina, to restore natural flow patterns and reduce the impact of any future storm surge.Skip to next paragraph
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For many, the Bayou Caddy proposal speaks to the power of market forces to erode a region's resolve to bolster its hurricane defenses – even with Katrina fresh in memory. The $750 million project, known as The Breezes of Paradise Bay, would eventually include as many as four high-rises studded with shops, arcades, restaurants, and residences. There would be room for perhaps 10,000 people in this "condo city" on the bayou – more than in the nearby towns of Waveland and Bay St. Louis combined.
Development of the scrubby marsh, now dotted with a few crab shacks and shrimp-boat docks, could be an economic boon to an area whose economy was shattered by Katrina, which is why the plan has broad political support. The developers said in a 2006 letter to the county that the project could add as much as $7.5 million annually to tax rolls.
What's more, proponents argue, condos built of concrete and steel would be better able to withstand a hurricane and could even serve as a man-made wind barrier that might protect properties further inland.
Rising land costs and the durability of high-rise towers are why resistance is diminishing to the idea of building condos on the coast, says developer Barney Creel of Gulfport. "What's the alternative?" asks Mr. Creel. "There's not a good alternative. I can understand how people don't want to see the small-town feeling go away, but it's just no longer financially feasible for that [residential] type of development down here. I think the realization of the feasibility of condos is sinking in."
The debate over Bayou Caddy cuts to the core of America's fixation with coastal living, says Orrin Pilkey, a Duke University professor and author of "The Corps and the Shore." At issue, he says, is whether the US should reduce the scale of the human profile on the coast, allowing smaller structures further inland, and off the marshes, instead of allowing large-scale construction directly on beach fronts.
"This is no time, in the context of rising sea levels and the expected increase in the rate of hurricanes, to be allowing condo development right on the shore," says Dr. Pilkey, a geologist specializing in coastal development.
"This is crazy. It gives the community no chance to move back, to let the big buildings go and let little buildings go in."
If the Corps grants the fill permit for the Bayou Caddy project, critics fear it will open the floodgates for other development on marshes. Some hydraulics engineers say the marshes helped to slow Katrina's ravaging path across Mississippi. Trucking in clay dirt to fill a marsh to build such structures is like encasing a sponge in plastic wrap, they argue. Skipping over soft ground made hard, any future flood surge would travel further onto land, exacerbating property damage deeper inland.