Neighborhood settlement delayed

Relocation costs concern Metro Council

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Adam Babich, attorney for residents of University Place subdivision, answers questions during a Metro Council meeting  Wednesday. Metro Council members considered a settlement for the residents living near a sewerage treatment plant. Listening at left is East Baton Rouge Parish DPW Deputy Director Brian Harmon.
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Adam Babich, attorney for residents of University Place subdivision, answers questions during a Metro Council meeting Wednesday. Metro Council members considered a settlement for the residents living near a sewerage treatment plant. Listening at left is East Baton Rouge Parish DPW Deputy Director Brian Harmon.

Scotlandville residents living next to a smelly, fly-infested sewer plant who have fought the city-parish for 17 years will have to wait at least two more weeks for a resolution.

A settlement reached by city-parish officials and the residents of University Place subdivision — located next to the North Waste Water Treatment Plant — was presented to the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council on Wednesday but council members deferred action until their Dec. 12 meeting.

The terms of the settlement authorize the city-parish to acquire 44 homes surrounding the treatment plant, offering residents fair market value of their homes, relocation expenses and additional compensation to ensure they’re placed in homes comparable in size and condition to their current homes.

The city-parish would also build a barrier of greenery around the sewer plant to absorb odors and block the view of the plant from the remaining neighbors.

Public works officials and the Parish Attorney’s Office estimated the relocation and buffer project would cost $6 million, an amount that raised concerns from some council members.

“I’m looking at everything included, and $6 million seems low to me,” Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis said.

William Daniel, chief administrative officer to Mayor-President Kip Holden, stressed that $6 million was an estimate, and said the city-parish won’t know the true cost until appraisals of the homes are conducted. Like any construction project, he said, it could end up costing more or less than was estimated.

The costs of the relocation and buffer would come from the Sanitary Sewer Overflow program, which is paid for from a dedicated half-cent sales tax and sewer fees. The deal is contingent on the EPA’s approval of extending the city-parish’s deadline to complete federally mandated sewer projects, which would free up more funds.

The settlement, if approved, would end years of convoluted litigation involving the residents, the city-parish, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

In 2010, courts ruled in the city-parish government’s favor, saying it had no legal obligation to accommodate hundreds of plaintiffs in the neighborhood who had sued the city-parish for expanding the sewer plant in the 1990s. Despite the court victory, the Metro Council in 2011 asked city-parish officials to devise a buyout for the residents.

LEAN filed a lawsuit against the city-parish last year alleging problems at the plant. This year, LEAN and the University Place residents intervened in the federal lawsuit from the EPA that mandated the sewer program.

Daniel urged the council to approve the buffer project, calling it “a good business decision.”

“This is not about lawsuits, this is not about damages,” he said.

Councilman Ulysses “Bones” Addison, whose council district includes University Place, pointed out that once the council signs off on turning the area into a buffer zone, the residents will have no choice but to be relocated even if they are dissatisfied with the offer they receive from the city-parish.

“Once we get down this road, it leaves us in a position that they have no other choice than to take what we offer them,” he said. “But what they’re still not clear on is how much they can get for their property.”

He said some of them may end up realizing the offers are too low to accommodate their needs. He said some residents, who have homes that are paid off or who have extremely low interest rates, could be put in positions where they might need additional money to pay off a new house.

“I don’t think they win in this scenario,” Addison said.

Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle stressed to the council that details of the settlement were negotiated and agreed upon by the attorneys involved.

“These issues have been hashed out with the clients and their attorney,” Marcelle said. “If their attorney didn’t have (permission) to proceed with the settlement, then we wouldn’t be here today.”

Councilman Rodney “Smokie” Bourgeois proposed deferring action on the item,
saying he needed additional time to interpret the information.

Adam Babich, an attorney representing the residents, first asked the council to move forward with the settlement, and then after conferring with his clients midmeeting, said they would support a two-week deferral because many of the residents now had concerns.

Greg Mitchell, a spokesperson for the residents, said after hearing the council’s concerns that he was skeptical that the settlement would adequately serve them.

He said ultimately he hopes the elected officials “do what’s fair.”

Daniel said after the meeting that he was disappointed the settlement wasn’t approved because there is nothing more the city-parish can concede.

“You can’t retry the lawsuit, you can’t give them additional money,” Daniel said. “We’re legally bound to offer them fair market value and that’s it. There’s nothing more we can offer.”

In other business:

LIQUOR LICENSES: the Metro Council approved some language changes giving the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board more leverage to vote against applicants for liquor licenses in low-income areas with a high number of alcohol outlets.