Historic black community ready to fight for legacy against Mississippi road plan. Will President Biden help?

Published 6:17 am Saturday, February 6, 2021

A community coalition is appealing to a new federal administration in hopes of stopping construction of a roadway that will cross wetlands and open hundreds of acres for development along U.S. 49, Gulfport’s main commercial corridor.

“That road is going to destroy quite a bit of valuable wetlands,” said Kathy Egland, who lives in Gulfport and co-founded of the Education, Economics, Environmental, Climate and Health Organization. “Then it’s going to lead to destruction of others. The proposal clearly states that this connector road is going to lead to other types of development in that area.”
EEECHO, the North Gulfport Community Land Trust, the National Council of Negro Women and other groups have joined the Coalition to Protect and Preserve Forest Heights, a historically Black community bounded by wetlands and commercial development along U.S. 49 just south of Interstate 10.

Residents of Forest Heights and North Gulfport have for years fought off development of the wetlands because of the increased flooding commercial development brings.

The city says the roadway will ease congestion and create new jobs through commercial growth. The city has received $20.5 million in transportation grant funds to build almost 2 miles of roads, including an I-10 overpass that would link shopping areas, and a sports complex north of the interstate with one planned on the south side.

The total cost of the project, which would include pathways, along with grass medians and vegetated channels to control storm water runoff, is estimated at $32 million.

Before development can proceed, the city must secure environmental permits for the project from state and federal agencies, which could take a year or more. The city hopes to begin construction in 2023.

BIDEN’S ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE PLAN

The Forest Heights coalition is hoping for a sympathetic ear from the administration of President Joe Biden. The new president has established environmental justice as a centerpiece of an executive order to combat climate change.

The order includes an interagency council on environmental justice with the secretaries of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development as members. The council is charged with addressing issues of environmental injustice within minority and low-income communities.

Egland said the coalition has written transportation and housing cabinet members in a formal appeal asking that the grant be denied. The Forest Heights coalition wants the wetlands preserved.

“We’re geographically situated to be vulnerable to climate events,” Egland said. “To destroy such a natural protection doesn’t make sense.

The president also has ordered the U.S. Justice Department to consider creating an Office of Environmental Justice that would ensure “comprehensive attention” to the issue.

Glenn Cobb of the North Gulfport Community Land Trust said in a news release:
“We’re hoping that establishing an environmental justice oversight agency within the DOJ will provide communities such as Forest Heights and the surrounding areas of North Gulfport with the environmental protections needed to stave off the litany of proposed toxic and hazardous development projects.

“It has become commonplace for officials to appeal to the economic desperation and recreational needs of low-income and/or minority communities and misguide them into believing that it is their best interest to risk their environmental safety, health and well-being in exchange for basic necessities.”

GRANT WILL RAISE LEVEE IN GULFPORT COMMUNITY

Environmental attorney Robert Wiygul of Ocean Springs said Biden’s executive order is an “aspirational document.” He said it is too soon to say what the impact will be.

“Under this administration,” he said, “there’s going to be a much closer examination of the equity impacts of funding things like that connector road, but in terms of exactly what that means, it’s hard to say.”

Forest Heights was one of the first integrated communities built to foster home ownership for low-income families under a model the National Council of Negro Women developed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Ford Foundation.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina flooded all but five of the 200 homes in Forest Heights, which is in the Turkey Creek watershed. In addition to preserving wetlands to prevent flooding, the residents have for years pleaded for a higher levee.

The city recently received word that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will provide $15.5 million in funding to raise the levee and build a pump station.

Victoria Sharpe, president of the NCNW’s Gulfport Section said the levee will not be a “bargaining chip” that ends opposition to the new roadway.

“We will continue to stand guard over our proud, historical legacy of Forest Heights,” she said.