A deal to relocate at least 44 Scotlandville families living next to a foul-smelling sewage treatment plant was rejected at Wednesday night’s East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council meeting after it failed to muster the seven votes required for approval.
Outgoing Councilman Ulysses “Bones” Addison, who represents University Place residents affected by the sewage plant and who also resides in the same subdivision, was among the three council members who voted against the deal to relocate residents at an estimated cost of $6 million.
In April 2011, Addison initiated the council action asking the city-parish to craft a buyout plan for residents. But on Wednesday, at Addison’s last meeting as a council member, he said he couldn’t support the plan because, once it was approved, residents would be forced to relocate even if they wanted to stay.
“My vote was based on what I hear from my community,” he said. “If I thought it was in their best interest, I’d be the first to vote for it. No one wants them out of this condition more than I do.”
At the end of the meeting, Addison ended up in a heated verbal argument with a handful of his constituents who were upset about his vote.
“Why would you bring it up if you were going to vote against it?” asked Shontelle Mitchell, a University Place resident, who accused Addison of “playing politics.”
“Well I’m not your councilman anymore,” Addison responded.
In addition to Addison, council members Joel Boé and Scott Wilson voted against the buyout proposal. Council members Trae Welch, Mike Walker, Ronnie Edwards, Alison Gary, Rodney “Smokie” Bourgeois and Tara Wicker supported the deal. Council members Chandler Loupe, Donna Collins-Lewis and C. Denise Marcelle were absent from the meeting.
An item requires seven votes on the 12-member council to pass.
After the deal failed, an attempt to defer the item for 60 days also failed by again falling one vote short. Addison abstained on that vote instead of voting no.
Adam Babich, an attorney representing the University Place residents, urged the council to accept the deal, but his comments were undermined by some of the University Place residents attending the meeting.
“What we don’t want is perfect to be the enemy of good,” Babich said. “My concern is if we go down the road of unrealistic issues of what could have been, then we’ll have to go back to the drawing board and have residents stuck in unsanitary conditions.”
Councilman Mike Walker then called on the residents in the audience, who were shaking their heads in disagreement with their attorney, to address whether they wanted the deal.
“It’s six in one hand, half a dozen in the other,” said Greg Mitchell, a University Place spokesman. “Council, it’s on you guys.”
Other residents said they were concerned that they were being asked to accept the deal without knowing how much money they’d get for their homes.
Assistant Parish Attorney Bob Abbott said the city-parish can’t get appraisals for the property owners until the Metro Council approves the project, because they can’t legally spend money without a designated purpose.
The buyout would have been made possible by the Metro Council declaring the area a “public project,” which would then allow the city-parish to expropriate residents from their homes.
The city-parish uses that method when it needs to build a road or other construction project.
In this case, the city-parish intended to build a buffer zone blocking the sewer plant from view with greenery that city-parish officials said would absorb the odors.
Several Metro Council members stressed that the buyout proposal before the council Wednesday might be the only deal that residents would receive from the city-parish.
Edwards noted that the city-parish was adhering to federal relocation guidelines that ensure the residents are fairly compensated for their homes. The guidelines provided for a home of comparable size and condition, relocation costs and utility hook up costs.
“I don’t know any other standard that gives you more protection,” Edwards said.
The failed settlement, estimated at $6 million, effectively kills a negotiation that was more than a year in the making among the city-parish, University Place residents, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, who had all been tied up in litigation.
The costs of the relocation and buffer zone would have come from the Sanitary Sewer Overflow program, which is paid for from a dedicated half-cent sales tax and sewer fees. The relocation was tied to the EPA’s approval of extending the city-parish’s deadline to complete federally mandated sewer projects, which would have freed up more funds.
William Daniel, chief administrative officer to Mayor-President Kip Holden, said after the meeting that the Metro Council can place the item back on the agenda for consideration. But he said he didn’t know if the mayor would continue to offer funding for the project.
Holden did not attend Wednesday’s meeting, which was the council’s final meeting in 2012.
About 17 years ago the University Place residents sued the city-parish for damages related to expanding the sewer plant, but the courts ultimately decided in 2011 that the city-parish had no liability, except for one resident.
Parish attorney Mary Roper said the court ruling prevents the city-parish from being able to negotiate with the residents, without declaring the area a public project.
“We can’t offer to just go in and buy up their houses because it’s a violation of our constitution,” she said. “The Supreme Court ruled that the city-parish owes nothing to these people.”