Lafayette’s councils press for answers on quick-take drainage expropriations

LCG has moved forward with projects like the Homewood Detention Pond project in Milton without a comprehensive drainage plan. A judge halted work on Homewood May 4, saying LCG's expropriation of the land was unlawful. Photo by Travis Gauthier

The gist: The Guillory administration’s plans to declare two more private properties a “public necessity,” carving a legal path to seize the land for drainage projects, may hit a snag at tonight’s City Council meeting.

Two council members plan to pull at least one of the introductory ordinances — the one targeting the BellSouth building at 1001 Jefferson St. as part of the Downtown Drainage Improvements Project in Councilman Glenn Lazard’s district — for discussion and possible deferral. The other involves private property near Moss Street and E. Gloria Switch Road for the Nottingham Drainage Improvements Project in Councilman Pat Lewis’s district. Public necessity declarations create the legal grounds for LCG’s practice of “quick take” expropriation, which is already being disputed in two court cases.

Get caught up quickly. The Guillory administration has been aggressive in its approach to flood mitigation, authorizing $150 million in drainage projects with — until tonight — little pushback or skepticism on the part of Lafayette’s City and Parish councils. Scrutiny of that effort has instead been ongoing in court. In November, a district judge ruled that LCG had improperly applied Louisiana’s quick-take statute in taking land from the Randol family heirs for the Lake Farm Road detention project, failing to prove the project was a public necessity. Just weeks after the legal defeat in the Lake Farm Road project, LCG moved ahead with a much more ambitious project, using the quick-take maneuver to seize nearly 375 acres of farmland along the Vermilion River just north of Milton to build the $30 million Homewood Regional Detention Pond, part of its Bayou Vermilion Flood Control project.

Work halted on Homewood last week on the order of 15th Judicial District Court Judge Valerie Gotch-Garrett while the state engineering board determines whether project engineer Pam Granger can testify as an expert witness. Granger wrote a report justifying the project, and her firm is contracted to design the ponds on property seized from the Bendel Partnership, which is fighting to keep the land. Louisiana administrative code prohibits engineers from taking part in “considerations or actions” related to their own work. Granger’s contract is worth up to $3.6 million.

“Do not touch the property,” until the professional licensing board weighs in, Garrett told LCG’s lawyers.

LCG faces a likely third legal challenge. In yet another controversial move not related to quick-take, the Guillory administration purchased property in St. Martin Parish last month and secretly removed decades-old spoils from the banks of the Vermilion River. St. Martin Parish says it will sue.

“I am not prepared to vote on anything right now involving the expropriation of [private] property,” says Councilman Lazard. “It deeply concerns me, especially in light of the ruling in the Lake Farm Road project.” LCG has appealed the judge’s decision in that case.

Councilwoman Nanette Cook also has questions about the Downtown ordinance. “Can you tell me, based on engineering, that it’s going to benefit the Downtown drainage,” she asks. “Why is this location so crucial that we have to take it, and why can’t we use public right of way to improve our drainage Downtown.”

Councilman Lewis says he will support the introductory ordinance related to property in his district. “This is an introduction. This is not final adoption,” he says.

Lazard and Cook say they will question the lack of cost-benefits analyses on drainage projects. “We should probably ask for it on every one. Now these projects are not as big as [Homewood], but if that’s best practice, it’s something we should have moving forward,” Cook says. “What kind of return will you get to make it worth the investment?”

Members of both councils are uneasy with mounting legal fees and potential damages, saying they are concerned about what the overall expenses to LCG will be, including legal fees and any kind of property repairs that may need to be done if the owners win in court.

Homewood is funded mainly by state outlay dollars. A two-phase project located in unincorporated Lafayette Parish, its $30 million price tag could balloon to $60 million, according to LCG’s website, but it’s unclear just how much money has already been spent. Court testimony last week revealed that the project's contractor, Rigid Constructors, had already dug two of the project’s four detention ponds and was working on a third before Garrett told LCG to stop construction. Tonight the administration is asking for $2 million more in ARPA funds for the Bayou Vermilion project.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if we would have to pay it back [to the state],” should the property owners prevail in the Homewood case, says Parish Councilman Kevin Naquin. “And are we in a position to pay it back?

“I’m not approving or supporting anything until everything is iron tight, ducks in a row and there is actual communication going on. I have concerns about St. Martin Parish, the Homewood deal. Why is this happening?”