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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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"If we don't nip this [project] in the bud, the pressure will be to develop more and more, and the Corps is critical to stopping that," says Bob Davis, a former Corps engineer and an agency critic.

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Not all scientists agree that Mississippi's low-lying marshlands would do much to absorb the smack of a big storm.

"It's a concept that's stuck with the public, but the absorbency of the ground, when you look at the physics of how a storm surge works, has very little effect as what you might call a sponge," says Robert Twilley, director of the oceanography department at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. That doesn't mean the condo idea is a good one, he adds. The practice of filling some wetlands and creating others as "mitigation" nibbles away at the coast and undermines what Dr. Twilley calls "landscape integrity."

"The Army Corps still has not come to grips with that issue," he says.

The Corps, for its part, is going to make someone unhappy when it decides what to do about the Bayou Caddy fill permit. The stakeholders are many – politicians, state marine resources divisions, environmentalists, and landowners – and their interests are not always apparent.

With national coastal policy in flux, interest groups on both sides tend to hype their positions and stretch the facts, Twilley says.

"The public-policy sector has to be open-minded about the biases of their value system, which is the dollar, and [ask whether] the dollar really provides the best accurate condition of value when it comes to natural resources," he says. "What happens is you get forced into hyping functions of [economic development and natural resources] to build a level playing field, and that's a shame."

Meanwhile, the Army Corps, a military engineering agency best able to provide hard data on issues from natural surge protection to hydraulics research, is struggling to shift focus from building structural engineering projects to spearheading the debate over coastal policy. At the very least, the Corps needs to do a better job of informing the debate than it currently does, says one Corps spokesman. That aim is a major tenet of the agency's new internal "Actions for Change" program, which calls for the Corps to take a bigger role in setting coastal policy.

"The purpose of the risk-informed approach and risk communication is to make sure that for decisions made in these areas, even those not made by the Corps, people have information to see how those decisions might affect flood risk," says Mr. Harper, the Corps economist.

For the Breezes of Paradise Bay project, the winds may be shifting. Despite early support for the project, the Hancock County planning board recently clarified that structures higher than 12 stories will not be allowed at Bayou Caddy – a rule that may downscale the plan considerably.

The Corps, moreover, is taking a careful look at the permit application, with one spokesman saying there's no guarantee the project will get off the ground. A decision is expected in the next few months.

"If it's really high-quality wetlands, I don't know that you would or would not get the permit," says Pat Robbins, a Corps spokesman in Mobile, Ala. Bayou Caddy, he adds, "is probably pretty high-quality wetlands."