Also see: Pearl River Levees/Lakes Archive
Although both the U.S. Corps of Engineers and the local Levee Board have rejected the Two Lakes development/flood-control plan, its supporters are vowing not to give up.
The Levee Board decided to move ahead with the Corps' recommendation to build levees in December, driving another nail in the coffin of the controversial Two Lakes plan, which would dam and dredge the Pearl River below the Ross Barnett Reservoir, creating artificial lakes covering 4,900 acres, and creating 90 miles of shoreline. The current plan would create 36 islands, which would ostensibly become prime development real estate, after infrastructure and services are funded.
Levee Board member Leland Speed argues that oilman John McGowan's lakes plan will create more long-term wealth, and complains that the Corps-endorsed levee plan only offers 79 percent flood protection because of the lack of pumping stations at the floodgates of select Jackson creeks.
Corps spokesman Kavanaugh Breazeale said the levee plan not only delivers 79 percent flood control, but does so at an affordable price and with the least amount of potential environmental issues to upend it during the planning phase.
"It costs less than any other plan out there, and it gives back a positive cost ratio. It brings down the cost of insurance. For every dollar spent, you get more than a dollar back in flood insurance savings and property benefits," Breazeale said.
Speed won't accept that, though. "I have serious reservations about the effectiveness of this (levee) plan. We don't know if the levee will, in fact, deliver flood control," Speed said.
Critics of Two Lakes say the same thing about that plan, pointing to its serious environmental mitigation issues—the plan would destroy more than thousands of acres of wetlands and forests—and questions about its anti-flooding promise.
The Two Lakes plan is also a potential lightning rod for lawsuits—from environmental to the business community in Louisiana. The Times-Picayune reported in 2008 that the swamp tourism industry on the lower Pearl is terrified of a lakes plan in Jackson because the impoundment here could send water pollution downstream and disrupt water levels there.
Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr., a Levee Board member who voted to proceed with levees in December, said the obstacles to Two Lake are serious. "The Corps doesn't approve of any impoundments on the river. The Two Lakes plan is not environmentally sustainable," he told the Jackson Free Press editorial board earlier this month.
But Two Lakes developers and advocates are not a group to take "no" for an answer. They argue that the city of Jackson should move forward with plans for lake development, regardless of Corps opposition, saying it doesn't need the $133 million from the feds to make it happen.
Downtown Jackson Partners President Ben Allen argues that local entities can "privately" fund the development, or come up with a creative public/private solution to please the roughly 100 land owners in the Two Lakes footprint. Those ideas, of course, would only address paying for it--which the Corps estimates would cost about $1.4 billion due to environmental mitigation, including a $150 million landfill removal.
Since the Levee Board rejected Two Lakes, Allen has come out strong against any flooding solution other than Two Lakes with multiple posts about it on the Downtown Jackson Partners blog. He says the City of Jackson can form an authority with the state, Jackson State University, and Hinds and Rankin counties to assume ownership of this project. Project heads could then work with financiers to offer "private placement" to the general public, in the form of stock shares in the development—possibly at $200 per share for 5 million shares.
Johnson is dubious of the prospects Allen is presenting. "The biggest problem, I expect, would be finding enough people willing to invest in the stock," he said.
The mayor warned that the vocal Two Lakes campaign against levees is one-sided. "They've done a great job of focusing the debate away from the cost of these other options to the cost of levees. Any option will be expensive, and I don't buy that the private sector can come up with $400 million or $600 million to pay for an option. Any option will have to involve the public body because the private sector can't assemble land or conduct eminent domain."
Johnson was equally dubious about the private sector's ability to coax up to hundreds of millions in loans from lending agencies based upon land-value increases decades down the road. "All of this will be paid for by the increase in the value of land, they say. That means I'm going to a bank and saying 'loan me a few hundred million dollars and maybe in 20 years property value will be such that I can pay you back.' I'm not sure if banks do business like that," he told the editorial board.
The lakes plan could also aggravate the city of Jackson's effort to upgrade its infrastructure, including the wastewater-treatment plant near Byram. If the impoundment produces even a temporary reduction in the level of the river, the city will have to contend with federal scrutiny of organic run-off pouring into it from the treatment plant, among other barriers.
Mississippi Sierra Club Director Louie Miller promises that opposition would line up against Two Lakes, even if developers surmounted the federal and state requirements.
"We'll keep them in court for 50 years if they try to move on this thing," Miller said. See Sierra Club's 2004 report on Two Lakes' environmental issues.
Lakes or Nothing
Two Lakes allies, however, are focusing bad PR efforts on the levees plan—which was developed in 1996, and has not been updated since, due to political pressure from the Two Lakes lobby to consider only one option.
And there are problems with the levee plan, no doubt.
The City of Jackson, for example, would have to remove some of the businesses built inside the floodplain along Lakeland Drive during the 1960s and 1970s. The new levees bordering this area on both sides will solidly increase the chance of flooding during even mild river elevation, and few insurance companies would be willing to cover the resulting flood-prone area without cost-prohibitive elevation-based additions to buildings, such as stilts or foundation hikes.
"The levee plan eminent-domains $30 million worth of businesses inside Jackson; yet we're the bad guys," McGowan spokesman Dallas Quinn told the JFP. "I'm not lying about the lakes plan not having to make use of eminent domain. It does make use of eminent domain, but the Two Lakes plan does not eminent-domain anyone's structure, business, or home." (The JFP has not confirmed the $30 million figure.)
That means, of course, that Two Lakes would require the government to take property as well; private developers cannot take someone else's property. McGowan told the Jackson Free Press last summer that he could not get enough support from landowners for a fully private option.
Jackson resident Jack Westbrook said the lakes plan would not directly claim his house, but he complained that it would still drive him out of his home through other means. Even if the lake does not eventually swallow enough of his property to remove him, the resulting increase in his property's value will drive him away as it becomes high-end lakefront property. "I wouldn't be able to afford the taxes, and I think the developers know this," he said. "Heck, I bet they're counting on it."
Allen suggested on the DJP blog that targeted property owners would be paid $2,500 an acre for their land either voluntarily or through the use of eminent domain, although Westbrook pointed out that new owners of emerging lakeside property could potentially come to own land many times that value. He said he would be equally as unlikely to tolerate a public plan for funding the lake, which he said would levy heavy costs upon him for the servicing of the bond debt.
Two Lakes developer McGowan owns property both in and near the proposed Two Lakes footprint—land that would likely benefit from a 7,000-acre lake. He has revealed in the past that he owns 453.2 acres under his name, but a JFP search of property records indicates that his family and people associated with McGowan Working Partners own a large amount of property with no direct "John McGowan" stamp on it.
Recent maps of the proposed Two Lakes development, combined with searches of Hinds County property maps, reveal that McGowan, his family and members of McGowan Working Partners, as well as Leland Speed and Ben Allen and many property owners in Eastover and adjoining communities, could benefit from a development that brings lakefront development into close proximity to their property and homes.
Much of the property owned and managed by McGowan, his family and friends is grouped off the east end of Meadowbrook Road near his home, as well as near Allen and Speed. Maps show that a large bloc of undeveloped land there—previously reported as 140 acres—is fully owned by McGowan's himself, members of his family, and by McGowan working partners, including the DBR Investments LLC, owned by McGowan operating manager David Russell.
The land is encircled by property owned by the Meadowbrook Lakes LLC. Hinds County property rolls do not show a McGowan, or even a McGowan working partner, currently associated with Meadowbrook Lakes LLC. But it does list a post office box—the same one used by McGowan's company. That LLC is also registered to David Russell.
In the 1990s, McGowan drained at least 2.5 acres of wetlands from the swath of land without a federal permit, according to The Clarion-Ledger archives. He planned then to build 12 homes on the land, as well as a 31-acre lake and a 5,600-foot levee and chain-link fence. Some Eastover neighbors were outraged, saying McGowan was violating a Jackson ordinance limiting building so close to the river and increasing the chances of severe flooding on their property. McGowan backed off the plan, leaving the land sitting behind a large locked gate.
Two Lakes maps indicate that much of the land would become prime lakefront property on several sides. The entry to the land at the end of Meadowbrook is just east of Ben Allen's home. Last week, the Jackson Free Press reported on Allen's Two Lakes efforts, adding that he has "property (that) borders the river's flood zone and stands to increase in value from a lake development like that proposed by McGowan."
Allen complained in an e-mail to this reporter that the assertion was "absolutely and categorically untrue" because, he said, the story implied that he is supporting the Two Lakes project "for personal gain." In the e-mail, Allen reacted strongly to that one sentence: "My house does not border the proposed lake. I have a lake behind it now. The proposed lake (would) stop well short of the lake behind my house and on property owned by hell if I know. … but it damn sure ain't me."
He ended the e-mail: "…my support for two lakes has nothing to do with personal gain. Nor does it for McGowan if you did your homework." Allen did not return repeated messages to discuss the issue in more detail.
The JFP did not mean to imply anything more than Hinds County property maps indicate: that Allen is among landowners in the area likely to benefit from McGowan's proposed Two Lakes plan due to increased property value due to proximity to waterfront property proposed by McGowan.
According to Hinds County property rolls, Allen shares ownership of the small private lake he refers to in his e-mail with Anthony and Mary Petro; Edwin and Susan Gault; and John McGowan and his wife, Diane McGowan, whose home sits down the lake from Allen on its southwestern tip. Most of the land around the private lake, including a narrow strip between the lake and the city property, has been in the name of Diane McGowan since 2001; before that, "John W. McGowan Life Est." was listed on the property rolls.
That private lake and a narrow stretch of land owned by Diane McGowan separates Allen's land, as well as that of other adjoining homeowners, from an expanse of land the city of Jackson owns now that would apparently become one of the islands McGowan envisions under his Two Lakes plan.
According to the Two Lakes map, a new canal-like waterway would separate that island from an eastern point of the small private lake owned by the McGowans, Allens and the others. The map indicates a very small patch of land might be between the private lake and the Two Lakes canal, or conceivably a small jut of water that could connect the smaller lake with the Two Lakes canal. (See map illustration, page 17.)
Another big property owner in the area is Cypress Tree LLC, owned by William M. Mounger II a bit to the north. The Two Lakes plan indicates that much of that land would be waterfront under Two Lakes. The Cypress Tree property also lines a canal that would build out a creek that runs from the Two Lakes waterfront to the Jackson Academy area, creating a stretch of canal-front property.
'A Lot of Tracks'
Levee Board member Speed, who lives about two-tenths of a mile west of Allen and McGowan, confirmed last week that his family owns property near the proposed lake, which is listed on property rolls as the "estate of Catherine Speed."
"There's one little bitty piece that I think is down near Lakeland Drive, that I own jointly with my brothers and sisters," Speed told the JFP at the Jan. 11 Levee Board meeting.
Speed's brother, NASCAR driver Lake Speed of North Carolina, has been listed as the primary contact on Hinds County property rolls since 2003. Before that, only "Catherine Speed et al" was listed, along with the post office box for EastGroup Properties Inc., Leland Speed's company.
The land is useless, Speed insists. "It's totally unused. It's mostly woods, you know, where they put a sewer line east of some Mexican restaurant and a little gas station," Speed said.
Hinds property maps show that the land Speed refers to stretches along overgrown property just north of Highway 25 and lines the back of affluent Eastover property along the south and southeast bend of Twin Lakes Circle that you can see from the highway if you look closely. (In earlier versions, perhaps coincidentally, Two Lakes was referred to as "Twin Lakes.")
The eastern section of Speed's property strip bends northward around the edge of the neighborhood and, indeed, butts up against a big, overgrown ditch that runs under the Lakeland Drive bridge right at Lakeland Circle to the South and River Ridge Drive to the north. El Charro restaurant sits opposite the Speed property to the east of that ditch.
Two Lakes plans show that the property might not be completely worthless under McGowan's development plan. The map indicates that Lakeland Circle (and El Charro) would be on a new island, and a narrow waterway would likely line the current ditch on the west side of the island, possibly turning Speed's stretch into waterfront property. (Those two small nearby "twin" lakes also connect to the canal and, thus, the larger Two Lakes. Another McGowan associate, James Phyfer Jr., owns property on one of those lakes.)
The same island would stretch to the other side of Lakeland Drive as well. Most of that new island would incorporate undeveloped land owned by River Ridge LLC—created in 2007 by Richard T. Miller of McGowan Working Partners.
Levee Board member Mark Scarborough said Speed did not tell board members about the connection while casting votes in favor of the lake. "We had to find that out on our own," said Scarborough, who voted for levees in December.
Flowood Mayor Gary Rhoads, who voted for the levee plan, said he found out on his own that Speed owned property that would be impacted. "I confronted (Speed) on it, and he got upset with me over it," Rhoads said. "He very openly told me that he was proud to be the largest financial contributor to the Two Lakes Foundation. I made an issue of it, but a majority of the board never really went anywhere with it. I don't know how in the world he's on there representing the fairgrounds."
Ethics Commission head Tom Hood has not returned calls about whether Speed should have told the Levee Board.
Speed told the Jackson Free Press that his property is insignificant and will not benefit much from the new water. "Search all you like, but you can't find one self-serving feeling in (my vote). I've got none. The only thing you can say is that I've been here 77 years, and I've made a lot of tracks."
Speed, the son of a former Jackson mayor, joined the public sector with the election of Gov. Haley Barbour, who took office in 2003 and named Speed head of the Mississippi Development Authority. Barbour also named Speed to the Levee Board to represent the state fairgrounds. He appears in Levee Board and Corps minutes numerous times as representing the MDA with no mention of the Levee Board, including at a February 2006 meetings of the Corps, where then-Rep. Chip Pickering stated that the Two Lakes plan "would probably not be justified economically, precluding Federal participation in implementation."
On Feb. 24, 2004, Speed represented the MDA when he spoke in favor of Two Lakes (then called "Lefleur Lakes") at a "scoping meeting" the Corps hosted in Vicksburg. He stated in part: "I also would like to come out emphatically in favor of the LeFleur Lakes project as a way to resolve this (flooding) problem. … I have not heard any objections to it lately. This has an opportunity for the city, the counties, the surrounding communities to have a real asset rather than a couple of levees running along the sides. Because I have not heard anybody bringing up any other alternatives. Are we talking about levees or are we talking about the LeFleur Lakes project? We need to keep that in mind. Thank you."
Quinn dismissed any concern that Speed should have revealed his family's land before lobbying for Two Lakes; Speed's land only amounts to "seven-tenths of an acre," he said. A list of property owners released earlier by McGowan indicates that "Catherine Speed" owns 1.6 acres; property records do not show other property in her name currently.
At the same 2004 meeting, several McGowan working partners spoke on behalf of Two Lakes, but the minutes do not indicate that they revealed their connection with the oilman or any of the property.
'Pay for Your Own Lake'
The land holdings of Speed, McGowan and others may not be helping Two Lakes.
Rhoads felt confident enough in McGowan's personal motivation behind the lakes venture to say the board had no intention of putting taxpayer money to a project "so a handful of wealthy people can get richer." He also quipped to McGowan to "pay for your own lake" minutes after the Levee Board's December decision to move ahead with levees.
It is hard to know for sure at this stage who would end up with lakefront property and who wouldn't. McGowan spokesman Quinn said that the most recent diagrams of the lake will likely not be the proportions that get through the environmental vetting process and various legal challenges, especially should the project attempt to make use of federal co-funding—or both. Two Lakes, he said, could expand and recede in some spots in response to legal challenges and project tweaking, so there is no telling how close or how far the water will be from its proponents' homes when the plan comes together.
Environmentalists would likely push to shrink the water coverage in an effort to preserve wetlands, although McGowan maintains that his promised flood prevention would shrink if the lake area gets smaller.
"As far as the size is concerned, it could shrink in some parts and expand in others, but we'll work that out once we get at the table with these (environmental) agencies and come up with a proper mitigation plan to get those permits," Quinn said. "Hopefully, we can offset some lawsuits with mitigation to show them that this isn't some plan to flood all these wetlands and then leave."
The Corps has warned that Two Lakes would require environmental mitigation costing in excess of $1 billion.
At this stage, Two Lakes mitigation is hopeful thinking on Quinn's part as the Levee Board and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have taken Two Lakes completely off the table.
Meantime, Mayor Johnson says he is moving ahead with talks with the Corps about an improved levees plan that would include economic development around Town Creek. "They said they could accommodate that, and communicating with the river, with recreational features with the levees," he told the editorial board. "We need some way of communicating with the river. … If we sit around for 30 years and do nothing about flood protection, then that's a shame."
Johnson cautions that arguing that the answer is either Two Lakes or the 1996 levee plan is shortsighted. "If you frame the argument that it's either/or … it becomes a political football rather than something we try to bring some resolution to. People want flood protection, and I think the business community wants the same thing. I would hope that citizens on both sides of the river trust their leaders to make the best decisions."
Additional reporting by Donna Ladd.
BTW, all, we are working on a colorful map for online showing how all this property shakes out, and we will add as we find more, especially about the Rankin County side. (A big map Two Lakes folks gave shows a number of property-owner names on that side as well, but we haven't had time to sort them out.) An online tool that really made all this easier to figure out is this amazing Hinds County Dashboard map. You can use it yourself to figure out where people own property along the flood plain (we suggest starting by putting just the last name McGowan in the search command, then Meadowbrook Lakes and the other LLCs mentioned). We did not have time by press time to research completely so there may be others added as we go, even on the Hinds side. (Oh, and be sure to use the Dashboard's satellite photo images; it makes the red property images that show up even more dramatic! It's a geek's dream tool. Cheers to Hinds County; the Rankin side doesn't have anything similar that we have found.) Once we figured out who is listed as property owners for different areas, we cross-referenced them with Hinds County property records for names, addresses and the like, and checked the LLCs through the secretary of state's Web site, which was very helpful. The only current Two Lakes maps I know of that is online is on their Facebook page. It's not great, but it gives you an idea of what we were looking out. We have a large one they gave us last summer in the office (the one with many property owners on it), but it's too large to scan. We've asked Two Lakes for a smaller map that would reflect any changes in the last few months, but haven't received it, yet. I should also add that we did not include any information about where people live and the like in this story and visuals that is not easily available in a basic Google or white-pages search.
One more tip: It is vital to put last names first with no comma in the Dashboard search box. We suggest trying just the last name first so you don't miss anything, and then adding a first name if too many pop up.
I just saw that the Web folks posted the map to property we're talking about in this story (look above). It needs a couple tweaks to make it more clear: First, the proposed Two Lakes island are in bright green and have dots. We left the "island" dot off one of the main islands -- the one close to the private lake owned by McGowan, Allen and the other two couples. Per the Two Lakes map, that land is currently owned by the city of Jackson. Another thing that is unclear above: The section that is owned by the Speed estate adjoins the new Two Lakes water on the large Two Lakes map they gave us last summer. That's not very clear on our map above. As for the large red bloc of McGowan-related property ownership, the best way to see specifics on who owns what parcel is to go to the Hinds County Dashboard. I should also make clear that this map is not exhaustive for McGowan property; his map shows him owning at least one piece of property, which would be a chunk of peninsula with a lot of waterfront on the Rankin side north of Jackson Prep's acreage (Prep with get a canal through their property under the plan). There is also a Rankin-side chunk of would-be waterfront "JPM Investment" property to the right and south a tad of the McGowan LL River Ridge island property (which is shown on the map). JPM's president is Joseph McGowan and uses the McGowan Working Partners address. No JPM Investments property pops up on the Hinds side. We'll update the map to reflect these tweaks and add more info as we sort through more property. The Rankin side is going to take a bit longer (no groovy Dashboard), and it's Best of Jackson week, but we'll see what we can do. It's only fair to the public to have as much information as possible. More soon.
Someone just told me I left the link to the cool Hinds County Dashboard map out. Sorry, here it is again, and I've added the link up above as well. Very useful.
One final thing: Pearl Mayor Brad Rogers was listed under a photo in the print edition as "Brad Roberts." It will be corrected in the print edition next week as well. Also, one reference above to the Levee Board has been changed to the Corps (warning that Two Lakes mitigation would cost over a billion dollars). We apologize for the errors.
Colorful map above updated as promised yesterday. We will add more info as we find it. Have other things to do, too, right now during Best of Jackson Month!