Homewood detention pond property owners seek damages from LCG

Aerial of Homewood detention pond
LCG has spent millions of dollars on drainage projects since 2016, but local rules don't require it to determine how much that work is really worth. Photo by Robin May

The gist: The owners of a property seized for a vast water detention facility are pursuing damages from Lafayette Consolidated Government.

Get caught up, quickly. In December of 2021, LCG used an expedited expropriation process to take nearly 400 acres of private land near Milton to build the Homewood Regional Detention Pond. The project, estimated a year ago by LCG to cost $45 million, was nearly complete when a district court halted it. An appeals court ruled in December that LCG abused its authority.

Bendel Partnership filed Wednesday for a hearing to award fees and damages. The move comes as the Guillory administration awaits word from the Third Circuit Court of Appeal on a possible rehearing.

LCG broke its word that it would not begin construction until after they had a chance to fight the expropriation, the landowners say. An appraisal commissioned by LCG in September 2021 valued the land at $2.6 million; by law, LCG cannot pay more than appraised value. The original Feb. 1, 2022, hearing was delayed for “reasons beyond the parties’ and the Court’s control,” according to the filing. By that time, however, LCG had already started work on the parish project.

“LCG intentionally and willfully destroyed the Property,” the Bendels write. “LCG completely cleared the Property; cut down the trees; interfered with the oil and gas operations and related improvements on the Property; destroyed grading, roadways, and drainage features; removed significant amounts of earthen material (leaving gaping holes); stockpiled other earthen materials (rendering those portions of the property unusable); and altered the drainage and ditches on the Property.”

A dollar figure for the damages is unclear. The Bendel Partnership, made of more than 30 family members, says in the filing that LCG’s taking and destruction of the property was “of extraordinary magnitude.” The Bendels are asking for property damages and damages sufficient to restore the property to its original condition (or for diminution in value) and loss of revenue, along with attorneys’ fees and other costs.

State records appear to support the family's claim that LCG jumped the gun. LCG began excavating dirt from the property along the Vermilion River before it even signed the contract with Rigid Constructors on Feb. 3, 2022, according to correspondence with the Louisiana Division of Administration. A technical memo from engineering firm Fenstermaker dated March 23, 2022, notes that it was unable to do an earth volume analysis because too much dirt had already been excavated by Feb. 9. “After analysis of the original survey data taken on February 9, 2022 previously identified as ‘existing conditions,’ it was determined that the contractor had already started to excavate on site approximately two weeks prior to February 9, 2022.” (UPDATE: An image of the site provided to Straight News Online by a local resident on Aug. 27, 2023, does not appear to show any work underway on Feb. 5, 2022, two days after LCG signed the contract with Rigid.)

The state is withholding $30 million in capital outlay funding for the Bayou Vermilion Flood Control project, which includes Homewood, as the appeals process plays out and the Louisiana legislative auditor probes the Guillory administration’s drainage program. Investigators from the legislative auditor’s office arrived in Lafayette in mid-January. When Guillory told the City Council LCG’s staff was too busy to answer its drainage questions, the council launched its own investigation into the administration in October.

Losing this case could be costly. The state could seek to claw back some of the $19 million it has paid out on the Bayou Vermilion Flood Control project. Capital outlay includes state and federal funds. Those costs would tack on top of the millions already spent digging the nearly complete set of ponds. The administration’s attempts to use federal coronavirus relief dollars for the flood control project were halted because the project was awarded through a construction manager at risk process rather than a traditional public bid process.

The Bendel Partnership’s attorney, Randall Smith of New Orleans, did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.