Endangered bird endangers property sale

The campus of the former Southeast Louisiana Hospital in Mandeville seemed to present the solution St. Tammany Parish officials needed for easing traffic snarls on the highway leading to the popular Pelican Park. A bypass road could cut across the campus and provide an alternative access for basketball, disc golf, soccer, baseball and dog park lovers.

The campus was for sale. In need of money to balance the state budget, the Jindal administration wanted to unload the property for $18 million. The parish expressed interest in buying it.

Then Parish President Pat Brister got a call about something the state had neglected to mention during negotiations: The campus is home to an endangered species known as the red-cockaded woodpecker.

Any activities that might harass or harm the woodpecker — such as building roads or planting shrubbery — require permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Alarmed I guess is not the word, because you take what you get,” Brister said. “But the fact (is) we weren’t told about it.”

The way Brister remembers it, someone at the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries saw a newspaper article about the planned property sale and phoned to mention the woodpecker colony.

Soon Brister was looking at a hospital campus map filled with clusters of red circles. Each circle represented a woodpecker habitat.

Now negotiations between the state and the parish are stalled until a second appraisal can be completed.

The state must sell the property by next summer to help balance a $25.4 billion state operating budget that funds health care, education and other public expenses.

The state budget also relies on the sale of:

A downtown Baton Rouge office building for $10.3 million.

Prison property in Carville for $12 million.

A parking garage in Baton Rouge for $2.2 million.

So far, some property has sold.

Baton Rouge developer Eugene Ji bought Wooddale Towers off Florida Boulevard in Baton Rouge for $350,000.

A brokerage fee lopped off $14,600, with the state getting the rest for the budget.

The state also sold $2.9 million in property that belonged to the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols said she is in negotiations with a buyer for the downtown Baton Rouge office building and parking garage. She said $12 million is in escrow for the Carville property.

With several properties sold and deals nearing completion for others, the hospital campus is the biggest lingering issue in the Jindal administration’s attempt to slim down the state’s real estate portfolio.

Two families of woodpeckers apparently live on the Mandeville property.

Wildlife officials “tell us what we can do and can’t do. They draw large circles on a map,” Brister said.

The Jindal administration said most development projects can be modified to accommodate the endangered species’ needs. However, the guidelines are lengthy and complicated.

The woodpecker is a little bird that lives in Southern pine forests. The birds require pines that are at least 70 years old, and they need 200 acres of trees. The red in their name comes from a scarlet patch on the males.

In 1993, there were only 4,694 active clusters of red-cockaded woodpeckers.

By 2006, the number had grown to more than 6,000. The woodpeckers at Southeast Louisiana Hospital have been there since the early 1990s.

Nichols, who is the governor’s chief budget adviser, said conversations are taking place with wildlife experts about how to navigate the federal regulations involving the birds.

“We don’t anticipate any issues with the sale,” Nichols said. “We’re in active negotiations with the parish.”

The hospital — now called Northlake Behavioral Health Systems and operated by a private company — is part of a 293.86-acre parcel for sale.

The state’s appraiser estimated the property is worth $17.8 million.

Brister said the parish is conducting its own appraisal. She said there are a number of issues about the property besides the woodpeckers, including poorly maintained buildings and the fact that part of the property is considered wetlands.

“We are doing our own evaluation because we disagree with some of the assumptions,” she said.