Not feeling neighborly;  facility, residents in flap

Harahan couple Jamie Hill and Lawrence Robinson know that some people see them as troublemakers.

For years, they’ve complained about noise, dust and other problems associated with sand pits and construction activity that occurs on the Mississippi River batture across from their home on Riverside Drive in Harahan. Some of those concerns have been addressed, but now they say a new problem has cropped up in the opening of a wood chipping and mulching facility just a few dozen yards from their home.

The couple wants Harahan officials to take action against the facility’s operators, but city officials say they still don’t know if that’s within their power.

At issue is about 70 acres of batture used by Wood Materials LLC in unincorporated Jefferson Parish and Harahan for wood grinding and composting, Harahan Mayor Provino Mosca said.

Mosca said the portion of the operation in his city opened after Hurricane Isaac and seemed like a great way to quickly handle storm debris. City officials supported the work because it got Harahan’s streets cleared faster, although there were some issues about what times the grinding could start and stop. Mosca said everyone believed operations would cease soon after the emergency ended.

Instead, the facility has morphed into a composting operation that’s caused about a half-dozen complaints from residents like Hill and Robinson, Mosca said. He said the owners have managed to secure permits from a variety of state and federal entities but have never received approval from Harahan, which bars that type of activity on the batture. Now the city’s attorney is researching what steps, if any, the city can take against the operation.

“The question is, is it in the city limits of Harahan?” said Mosca, noting that the river batture has special rules. “We’re trying to get back in the loop.”

But Pearce Wood, the owner of Wood Materials and the batture property, said that he discussed the composting operation with Harahan officials roughly two years ago. Wood said he was given clearance to begin operations from former Mayor and current Jefferson Parish Councilman Paul Johnston. He said he feels sandbagged that the city is now claiming ignorance after operations have proceeded so far.

“I’m kind of feeling victimized here,” Wood said. “I think this is kind of something from one administration to another that kind of fell between the cracks … The first thing I did was go sit with Harahan. … I did my due diligence.”

Johnston said he remembers Wood asking about a composting facility nearly three years ago. He and the city’s regulatory director gave Wood a list of steps he would have to follow, including seeking a zoning change from the council. Johnston said he didn’t have the authority to give Wood the clearance to operate on his own.

“He didn’t follow through with the steps,” Johnston said. “I was the mayor, not the king.”

Councilman Tim Baudier, who served two years with Johnston, also doesn’t remember any approval and said it would have been unusual for the mayor to grant approval outside of the council. Baudier said he’s noticed odors from the facility and worries that it’s affecting the quality of life of residents. But, he called it a very “open-ended” issue.

“We’re such a small city that all we really have to offer residents is the quality of life,” Baudier said. “We just have to look into it and make sure everything is on the up and up.”

Wood touted the composting, which is being done in conjunction with the Laughing Buddha Nursery in Metairie, as an environmentally friendly way to deal with storm debris. Grant Estrade, the owner of Laughing Buddha, noted that site was even saving the parish from having to take Christmas trees to the landfill because they were no longer being used for coastal restoration. Wood said that Hill and Robinson have targeted his property on the batture for years for their complaints, despite his best efforts to work with them.

“I feel like I’m kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place here,” Wood said.

Hill acknowledged a long history with Wood and even gave him credit for addressing some problems. But, she said this is a separate issue and noted that Harahan’s zoning laws prohibit a composting operation on the batture.

The couple claims Wood saw an opportunity with the wood chips from the storm debris and decided to open a facility that would have never been approved if it went through the proper city channels. They said the massive wood piles give off noxious fumes, while piles of manure at the site draw excessive flies to the neighborhood.

Hill, who has collected reams of documents about the composting operation, wants the wood piles removed. She said Wood Materials has deceived residents and officials at the city, state and federal level about its plans for the Harahan site.

“They had designs to keep (the wood chips) here, and they had designs to slip it under the table,” Hill said. “They’ve pretty much been lying to everybody the entire way… The good neighbor thing hasn’t occurred.”