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Taken from the front page news
Deal made in Dauphin Island
beach erosion lawsuit

By KATHERINE SAYRE, Staff Reporter
Wednesday, August 05, 2009

In a nearly decade-old lawsuit over erosion, Dauphin Island property owners and the federal government have reached a proposed settlement that would give the island $1.5 million to restore tattered beaches, according to court records.

The Dauphin Island Property Owners Association filed a lawsuit against the federal government in 2000, blaming chronic erosion and land loss on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' dredging activities in the Mobile Ship Channel.

The lawsuit claimed that sand naturally flowing east-to-west on waves was trapped in the channel and prevented from replenishing the island's shores.

A lawyer representing the Property Owners Association and a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice both declined to comment Tuesday.

"The settlement agreement reached in the corps lawsuit, if approved, will put an end to years of litigation and will likely avoid more years of litigation and uncertainty," said Bill Harper, president of the Property Owners Association, in a letter to members on Tuesday. "This lawsuit and other litigation has been an obstacle to moving forward with efforts to secure projects that will restore Dauphin Island."

According to the proposed settlement, the federal government would pay $1.44 million and Alabama's government - also a defendant in the case - would pay another $60,000.

The payment, after legal fees, would be applied to a beach restoration project. It could pay for a feasibility study, engineering or the placement of sand on the beaches, according to court records. It was not clear Tuesday how much legal fees would be paid from the settlement.

Because it is a class action lawsuit, a hearing will be held in September during which property owners can voice their opinions about the settlement. A federal judge must approve the settlement before it is final.

Erosion has plagued the island, and hundreds of feet of beach have been lost in some areas along the Gulf of Mexico side. Barrier islands naturally grow, change shape and move with the currents, but the lawsuit claimed dredging of the channel caused land loss.

In 2006, both sides reached a settlement that called for a scientific study to determine the causes and extent of erosion on the island. A beach restoration project paid for by the federal government was a possible outcome of that settlement, if the study found the dredging to be a cause.

The study found no measurable erosion could be linked to the dredging of the channel - a finding that the plaintiffs challenged, according to court records.

Instead of continuing with that challenge, which could have lasted years, a new settlement was negotiated for a cash payment, according to court records.

Dauphin Island leaders have been rallying to fix erosion problems across the island, including hiring lobbyists to hunt for funding and campaigning to be added to a massive barrier island project in neighboring Mississippi.

"We are hopeful that once this settlement is finalized, the Town of Dauphin Island can continue to work with our local, state and federal representatives to accomplish the goal of restoring Dauphin Island as an effective Gulf Coast barrier island as soon as possible," Harper wrote.

In exchange for the payment, property owners would release the federal and state governments from any past or future claims of damage to their property from the dredging, according to court records.

The dredged material must continue to be placed in areas deemed beneficial to the island, where the disposed sand can drift back to the beaches, according to records.

The hearing will be held at 1 p.m. Sept. 15 at U.S. District Court in Mobile.

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