Columnist Geoff Daily explores Lafayette’s economy and government, providing critical commentary about what’s working and what’s not.

COLUMN: Homewood is a mistake Lafayette should never repeat

Aerial photo of a large detention pond surrounded by homes
The series of detention ponds along Homewood Drive are massive, built on 375 acres of land.

The challenges Lafayette faces to prevent flooding are massive and growing. We simply don’t have enough money to fix all of the problems. So we can’t afford to waste what money we do have.

In that light, let’s call the Homewood detention ponds project what it is: a boondoggle.

The settlement reached last month with the Bendel heirs might look like an opportunity to move on. But we need a full accounting of what went wrong; otherwise, we doom ourselves to continue making the same expensive mistakes.

It’s a mistake we can’t afford to repeat. Doing so would put at risk tens of millions more moving forward as LCG continues rolling out the same broken playbook. And, more importantly, we will blow our opportunity to spend money in ways that can actually keep people’s homes from flooding.

It’s expensive and unproven

There is still no evidence that the Homewood ponds, located north of Milton, will prevent any flooding. When LCG seized 372 acres to build the largest detention pond project in its history, it did so on the basis of three data points: preliminary analysis done by LCG, research LCG hired UL to do, and engineering done by LCG’s consulting engineer McBade Engineering. None of these proved out that this $60 million project will protect anyone’s property.

LCG’s preliminary analysis was, by its own admission in court, just a ballpark guess-timate. It showed enough promise that LCG commissioned UL researchers to do a deeper analysis.

UL’s research suggested the project would have limited impact on major flooding. Its findings did not support constructing the project, despite repeated attempts by the Guillory administration to characterize them as such.

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So the validity of this entire endeavor now rests on McBade Engineering, whose findings line up with UL’s research. McBade concluded that Homewood’s main benefit was to reduce the water surface elevation of the Vermilion River by roughly 6 inches during a 10-year rain event. There’s just one problem with that: Properties on the river generally don’t flood in 10-year storms.

At best, we simply don’t know what we’re getting out of Homewood, and its price tag is staggering — that was true before the cost went up another $12.2 million. We’re ignoring return on investment.

To give this some context, local governments must conduct a Benefit-Cost Analysis to secure hazard mitigation funds from FEMA for a drainage project. This determines the future risk reduction benefits of a project relative to its costs. In order for a project to be considered cost effective, it must show a benefit-cost Ratio of 1.0 or greater. So if a project costs $60 million, it needs to have evidence that it will reduce potential flooding damages by at least $60 million. But LCG has not produced any evidence suggesting Homewood will save one property, let alone $60 million worth. 

If this deficient practice is allowed to continue, LCG will continue spending our money on projects without any clear benefits.

An abuse of power

Two courts have ruled that LCG illegally expropriated the Homewood land from the Bendel Family Partnership. Both found that Lafayette’s local government violated the rights of private citizens by taking their land without sufficient justification. Lafayette needs a full accounting of what went wrong.

Lafayette is the only parish with the authority to use quick-take expropriation. That allows LCG to take control of land and start doing work on it before the courts have ruled if its actions are legal. But with that great power comes great responsibility. Because the costs can be high if you abuse that power, as the Homewood case shows.

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LCG’s land acquisition costs went up almost five-fold because of this failure. Originally, LCG offered the Bendels $2.6 million. The court settlement, styled as a land purchase, cost $12.2 million. And we likely got off easy. Had this gone to trial, damages would almost certainly have been even bigger — because LCG would have been on the hook for restoring to its original condition land that it just spent tens of millions destroying.

The negotiations and appraisal process alone that preceded the expropriation presents problems.

Is the Bendels’ land worth the $2.6 million LCG initially offered or the $12.2 million LCG ultimately paid? If the land is only worth $2.6 million, a value determined by an appraiser hired by LCG, then the expropriation wasted almost $10 million of our money. But if the land is actually worth $12.2 million, then LCG’s initial offer was an epic lowball.

In the private sector you could argue that’s just normal negotiations. But this is the public sector. When the Bendels rejected that offer, rather than making a counteroffer, LCG just took their land and dared the landowners to challenge them to protect their rights. Expropriation can be a legitimate tool for governments, but it can’t be used legitimately if a government isn’t making a serious effort to ensure property owners are fairly compensated.

And even if LCG didn’t intentionally try to pay less than market value, another issue this brings up is whether it’s properly accounting for the real costs of acquiring land. If LCG built a budget for this project on the assumption that it would only cost $2.6 million to buy this land, then this $10 million overrun has to come from somewhere. Which means we either won’t have enough money to finish this project or we’ll have to appropriate even more funds to dig ponds without evidence they’ll protect anyone’s property from flooding.

This boondoggle isn’t a problem for the administration only. Both the City and Parish councils have poured millions into it while letting this whole matter slip by without demanding any accountability. They should have to answer for that.

And these issues are potentially just the tip of the iceberg, as there are still unresolved questions about LCG’s decision to use the state’s Construction Management at Risk process rather than publicly bid this work. About LCG potentially paying way too much to move dirt. About LCG not getting proper permitting in place. About LCG deciding to embark on a drainage project of this scale without a comprehensive drainage plan in place. The list goes on — and on.

If the administration and the City and Parish councils don’t admit they screwed up and commit themselves to assessing what went wrong, what’s preventing them from making the same mistake again — and violating more property owners’ rights while costing taxpayers many millions in legal fees and settlements?

Drainage is an existential threat to Lafayette, but LCG’s mishandling of projects like Homewood is an existential threat to our future in and of itself.