Westwego officials look at unenforced rules on fill material

26-year-old Westwego fill ordinance mostly unenforced

A seemingly minor dispute between Westwego property owners could have far-reaching impacts on construction in the city now that politicians are looking to enforce a 26-year-old law that’s been traditionally ignored.

The Westwego City Council has decided to begin enforcing an ordinance that requires anyone using fill material in the city during construction to come before the board to receive approval for the work and for the type of fill used in the project.

Although the city has had the law since 1987, it’s never been enforced. Instead, contractors typically meet with the city’s building inspector to receive approval. The new rule has the potential to cause delays in construction projects because the council typically only meets once per month.

“I can see how it might hamper a little bit on the home builder,” Councilman Larry Warino said.

The change in policy is an outgrowth of a dispute between residents on Louisiana Street and a business in the area that has been brewing for months. For the past few council meetings, residents have complained that water is draining on their property from a lot owned by Matrana’s Produce in the 200 block of Louisiana Street. The company apparently has dumped dozens of loads of fill onto a lot where it parks several trucks

Residents complained that the business never secured the proper permits before dumping the fill material and that city law requires the business to build a concrete chainwall to prevent runoff. A man who identified himself as the son of the company’s owners declined to discuss the issue Friday.

Councilman Glenn Green, whose district includes the lot, said he’s tried to get Matrana’s to take the proper steps, but the company has refused. Now he’s ready to begin fining them and any other company who flouts the city’s ordinance.

“He feels like he does not have to obey the laws of this city, and that cannot happen,” said Green, adding that the extra step for contractors is worth the extra control it grants the city. “It ain’t going to kill them to come in there for a few minutes and tell us what they’re going to do. … Decent reasonable neighbors won’t mind doing that.”

Westwego’s current ordinance allows fines of up to $200 per day for failure to comply with its rules on using fill and installing chainwalls.

Councilman Melvin Guidry agreed with Green that enforcing the ordinance is in the city’s best interest. It would provide the city with a way to verify that quality and safe fill material is being used on projects and hold contractors accountable. Guidry isn’t sure how the city ignored the ordinance for so long, but he said it’s time to change.

“We never did implement that ordinance. We never did implement it,” he said. “Those are things that will be a lot better and a lot safer for the residents and the neighbors.”

But Councilman Ted Munch, the city’s longest tenured board member, said the council informally turned those duties over to the building inspector because that official has the proper expertise to evaluate issues, not the council. Councilman Ivy Rogers said it makes sense to tweak the ordinance so that only commercial projects require council approval, while simple residential work can proceed after the building inspector signs off on it. Munch said the council got out of the process to prevent unnecessary delays, and he would prefer if things continued as they currently work.

The city has to balance residents’ concerns with the needs of business, he said.

“It was put in so that we wouldn’t slow down the process,” Munch said. “We’re going to take a hard look at that.”