Kenner has plans for buyout properties

After more than a decade of false starts and delays, the city of Kenner is poised to move forward with the redevelopment of nearly 100 acres of vacant property near the Louis Armstrong International Airport, thanks to a new agreement with the city of New Orleans.

The New Orleans City Council will consider a proposal later this month that will allow the bulk approval of the resale of 260 properties purchased by the airport over several decades. The land, known collectively in Kenner as the “airport buyout properties,” was purchased from residents who could no longer handle the noise generated by the busy facility.

Kenner Chief Administrative Officer Mike Quigley said the properties represent a great opportunity for Kenner. He tends to use football parlance when discussing the land, and said that for years selling a piece of property has been like trying to score from your own goal line. That is because it can take 16 months to get the necessary approvals from New Orleans and the airport, which makes developers skittish.

“It’s not real attractive to them right now,” Quigley said.

But if the bulk approval passes, it will greatly reduce the wait time for a developer, which should facilitate more sales. New Orleans would issue a sort “blanket approval” instead of having to consider each property individually. Kenner and New Orleans officials are discussing the possibility of bypassing the standard auction process for selling the property as well, to be certain the choices aren’t gobbled up at a detriment to others, Quigley said. But even without that change, the blanket approval is a huge step for the land.

“This is putting it in the red zone,” Quigley said. “It’s eliminated a lot of steps.”

However, the “blanket approval” is only the first step. Kenner also must figure out how to make the land, which is spread throughout the city, more attractive. Because the property was purchased under the airport’s buyout program, it can no longer be used for residential purposes, said Michelle Wilcut, deputy director at the airport.

Starting in the 1990s, the airport spent roughly $60 million to buy hundreds of homes to settle a dispute over jet noise. It also paid for improved sound insulation at hundreds more homes within a certain proximity to the facility.

But for years the airport sat on the buyout properties, like many airports across the country, until the Federal Aviation Administration required airports sell excess land, Wilcut said. Armstrong officials have tried to comply, often swapping property with interested developers, but actual sales have been harder to come by. For example, a proposal to sell 13 acres to the East Jefferson Levee District for $1.3 million has languished for nearly two years. Wilcut said the airport is eager to get moving, especially since it receives 20 percent of every sale.

“We’re ready to sell now,” she said.

Kenner officials have longed to move the property back into commerce for years because the vacant land represents millions in lost tax revenue, according to some studies. But, the airport restrictions present challenges because most of the property is zoned for residential use and often is not contiguous. Because not every homeowner in the buyout zone chose to sell their property, there is a “jack-o-lantern” aspect to the properties. That means Kenner has to be careful in deciding which businesses to allow into neighborhoods and consider how they will affect quality of life, Quigley said

To that end, Kenner spent $40,000 to have the University of New Orleans create a master plan for the buyout properties. That plan is expected to be completed in March. It likely will create a new zoning classification for the properties and outline the rights and responsibilities of New Orleans, Kenner and the airport. One wrinkle is the possibility of creating a public board solely to manage the land, Quigley said.

Finally, the study will provide guidelines on handling rights-of-way, city streets and transit impacts from the land. It will likely establish a strategy for dealing with those properties within buyout zones that are still inhabited, Quigley said.

“We want to have some input into what it would be zoned and what it would be used for,” Quigley said.

Kenner Councilman Joe Stagni has said its imperative that Kenner maintains as much control as possible over the land, since it is within the city’s borders. At a recent council meeting, Stagni noted that the airport hasn’t always been the best neighbor, and Kenner must protect its interests.

Quigley agreed that Kenner must be careful but said that just the possibility of moving forward with the airport property after all these years is exciting.

“It was just a hope, but now we’re taking solid steps and making solid plans,” Quigley said.