Money is the root of all evil. It also can stop needed work on the levees. Is it because the land is owned by high rollers?
Construction of the long-awaited West Shore Lake Pontchartrain Hurricane Levee – designed to protect St. John the Baptist, St. Charles and St. James parishes from storm surges like those that devastated their east banks during Hurricane Ida – has been halted for at least 30 days because of a difference of opinion over the value of 364 acres needed to complete the project. At issue is land owned by a company with partners that include a former judge and a prominent New Orleans lawyer and real estate developer. The Pontchartrain Levee District and Louisiana officials had been negotiating with the firm, Nature Land Co. LLC, for two years. During the spring and summer of this year, the Army Corps of Engineers, which let the contracts to build the $760 million, 18½-mile-long levee system, requested access to the land for construction of temporary roads to the work sites.nola.com
No price has been set yet on the land but I am sure it will be far above the appraisal.
With no title in hand, the levee district went to court in early November to expropriate the land for $492,800, the value set by appraisers hired by the levee district and state. Nature Land says it hasn’t yet determined a price for its property, but that it doesn’t see a need to rush through an involuntary taking process. In April, before the levee district filed its expropriation motion, the company filed its own lawsuit arguing that Louisiana’s expropriation laws should be declared unconstitutional. Nature Land’s controlling partner is Thomas Kliebert Jr. of Paulina, a former judge of the 23rd Judicial District Court. New Orleans lawyer and developer John Cummings III is also a partner. The litigation and construction delay have erected a late hurdle in a 50-year-long planning, political and financial effort to build the West Shore levee. “Any delay is unfortunate, and obviously these access roads are needed,” St. John Parish President Jaclyn Hotard said Wednesday. “It’s unfortunate, given what the residents of St. John have just gone through. “This is a very large investment by the federal government, and there’s a lot of our citizens [who] need to be protected. So I feel this will eventually be worked out.”
Nature Land says after the levee is built they lose access to half the land. They also are challenging a new law that says that the state can take their land.
In its suit, Nature Land said that even if it granted only an easement to the levee district to use its property, half of the land would not be reachable when the levee was completed. And the other half, outside of the levee along Lake Maurepas, would lose its value as a location for future pipelines, the company said. It’s that potential pipeline revenue – plus recreational use of the land – that represents the company’s value, the lawsuit said. The Nature Land suit also challenges a state law provision that for the first time let levee agencies, the state and the Corps of Engineers expropriate property not located along rivers and streams – like the land needed for hurricane surge risk reduction levees. That change was made after Hurricane Katrina to assure quick access to additional land needed to expand and rebuild the New Orleans area levees and flood walls after the 2005 storm.
With these questions before the court and, maybe because another judge raised them(?) the operation was stayed.
On the day before Thanksgiving, Judge Vercell Fiffie of the 40th Judicial District Court in St. John Parish denied the levee district’s request for immediate expropriation of the land. He ordered a joint hearing Dec. 17 over the expropriation request and Nature Land’s competing suit. Fiffie’s ruling said there was no evidence in the court record of “an actual objection” being filed by Nature Land to the levee district’s $492,800 offer. He postponed entry by levee builders to the property for 30 days, giving the parties time to negotiate. The levee district’s executive director, Monica Gorman, would not comment on the litigation Wednesday. A state official, however, argued that Nature Land refused to negotiate the price of the property and did not respond to requests to discuss a settlement. “We have gone above and beyond our normal process with this landowner to try and resolve this issue to no avail,” said Chip Kline, chair of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. “At this point, any further delays will slow down the construction and completion of this critical hurricane protection project. West Shore Lake Pontchartrain protects the same people who were just devastated and are still recovering from Hurricane Ida. This unusual legal disruption could slow down the progress of this badly needed levee system for the people of St. John the Baptist, St. James, and St. Charles parishes.”
Nature Land says they support what the Corps is doing. Is it because of Not on My Land thought that they oppose selling?
Dallon Bush, an attorney representing Nature Land, said the company recognizes and supports flood control projects. He said the argument with the levee district and state is not over the land’s value. “Instead, it is about making sure that the government acts in good faith, follows its own rules and approaches this issue fairly vis-a-vis the landowner,” he said. He said the company had already allowed access to its land for soil testing and for construction of an access road. Bush also said the court’s orders haven’t actually halted or slowed construction “because all of the necessary permits have not yet been issued for the project.”
Not holding up construction? The Corps disagrees.
But a Corps spokesman said the 30-day delay of access would indeed delay construction. The state and the Corps ceremonially broke ground for the project in July, which was to be followed by construction of access roads for work near wetlands surrounding Lake Maurepas. Construction of the roads was to begin this month. “Before we can undertake construction in this area, the nonfederal sponsor [the levee district] must provide us an authorization for entry,” Corps spokesperson Ricky Boyett said. “Without authorization for entry, we will be delayed in constructing two of the critical access roads, which could then carry forward to delays in awarding levee and pump station construction contracts.”
Is this more of the “good old boy” network or a legitimate objection. We will see after the hearing.