Sewer buyout in EBR sights

Council members ask for 2nd vote on $6 million project

East Baton Rouge Metro Councilwomen Tara Wicker and Chauna Banks-Daniel said they intend to place back on the council’s agenda the proposed $6 million buyout plan for Scotlandville residents living next to a foul-smelling sewage treatment plant.

The proposed deal to relocate 44 Scotlandville families and build a buffer zone around the plant failed to muster the seven votes required for approval following an emotional debate at the council’s final meeting of the year Dec. 12. The deal fell one vote short of passage in a 6-3 vote with three members absent.

Wicker, whose district was redrawn this year to include parts of Scotlandville, said she still believes the buyout proposal is the best option for the residents.

“My concern is if we drag this out longer, then the dollars won’t be there,” Wicker said.

Wicker and Banks-Daniel have placed the item on the Jan. 9 council agenda, the first meeting of the new council.

Three council members — Chandler Loupe, Donna Collins-Lewis and C. Denise Marcelle — were absent when the council voted on the buyout proposal in December. Wicker said she believes the measure would have passed if those members had been present to vote on it.

But the next time the council meets, it will have four new members who will be weighing in for the first time on the decades-long debate, at least two of whom, Buddy Amoroso and John Delgado, said they do not support the deal.

Amoroso and Delgado replaced Mike Walker and Rodney “Smokie” Bourgeois, who were supporters of the buyout.

Amoroso said he’s sympathetic to the problems in that area, but would vote against a buyout.

“A couple of weeks ago, I went out to Scotlandville ... I saw the houses, I understand those people’s plight,” he said. “But as a guardian of the public funds, unless there is a public need for that property, I cannot give out taxpayers’ money for that buyout.”

Delgado said the city-parish, beginning with former Mayor-President Tom Ed McHugh, has offered buyouts to the residents on more than one occasion.

“Those people chose to reject those offers, then they sued the city. Then it went to the (state) Supreme Court and they lost,” he said. “Now using the council to rectify what was legally correct, seems to me a rather foolish proposition.”

Councilman-elect Ryan Heck said he needed time to research the issue before making a decision.

Banks-Daniel, who will replace Ulysses “Bones” Addison as the north Baton Rouge council member whose district encompasses the buyout zone, said she was going to be speaking with each homeowner affected by the buyout to find out if they support the deal.

She said she is hopeful the residents will support the proposal because, “I’m 100 percent sure they’re not going to get another opportunity from the city-parish.”

“We’re turning a page to get them out of the deplorable situation that they’re in,” Banks-Daniel said. “But at the end of the day, I want to hear from the people and move in a direction that they think is preferable for them.”

At the last council meeting, the residents’ attorney urged the council to approve the buyout. But some of the residents attending the meeting told council members they were wary of the deal.

Greg Mitchell, a spokesman for the group, said in an interview that he is still not satisfied with the proposal and wants the city-parish to come up with a plan that would assuage their doubts.

The main problem, Mitchell said, is that residents will have no choice but to leave if the council approves the buyout. But the residents won’t know how much they’ll be offered for their home until after the project is approved, he said.

“It’s like if you went to buy a car and they said, ‘Just buy it, put your name on the line, we’ll tell you after you get it how much it costs,” Mitchell said. “That’s the fear.”

The residents’ attorney, Adam Babich, would not comment for this story.

The cost of the relocation 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 the 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 residents intervened in the federal lawsuit from the EPA that mandated the sewer plant.