Illegal business stumps Harahan

An illegal Harahan mulching operation continues to irk residents and befuddle city officials who still haven’t determined how the city should shut down the facility.

Harahan officials have been grappling with how to address the problem for months, and Mayor Provino Mosca said officials still aren’t sure the best way to proceed.

Wood Materials LLC was given permission to do emergency wood chipping on the Mississippi River batture after Hurricane Isaac to help clear the city’s streets faster, but operation has morphed into a mulching and composting site, according to city officials and residents. City residents Jamie Hill and Lawrence Robinson have begged city officials to shut down the facility for months, but no official action has been taken.

Although Harahan’s ordinances prevent mulching and composting on the batture, Mosca said Thursday that enforcing those rules would likely take a lengthy court battle that the city can’t afford. City Attorney David Courcelle said that Harahan definitely has the grounds for a lawsuit, but if the city lost, it could be looking at serious damages.

“What’s going on is not a permitted use under our zoning ordinance. … I’m confident filing the lawsuit if that’s the decision that’s made,” Courcelle told the Harahan City Council. “But if we stop someone from doing their commerce, and we’re wrong, we’ve got to pay a lot of money.”

Pearce Wood, the owner of Wood Materials, has said he was given permission by city officials two years ago to do the mulching and composting, although that claim has been disputed. Mosca said that Wood does have some permits from other federal and state agencies and has expressed concern about whether Harahan’s rules can supersede those permits. However, Hill has argued that the city’s local laws trump federal ones.

Several council members commiserated with Hill and Robinson’s concerns, which include issues with flies, odor and, recently, fire, but said they still don’t have enough information to take action. Councilwoman Dana Huete praised the couple for their “diligence” and commitment to getting city officials information on the issue.

“I feel like we don’t have the answers you deserve at this point,” she said.

Council members Tim Baudier and Cindy Murray said they’ve heard that there are plans to move the mulching operations to a less problematic site in unincorporated Jefferson Parish. Baudier said coming to a compromise would be great.

“I just hope that somehow, someway, we can work something out with everybody,” he said.

But Councilman Lawrence Landry said it doesn’t make sense that an illegal business can operate in the city without repercussions. Landry compared it to him opening up an illegal fireworks stand on Jefferson Highway and being allowed to stay open because the city didn’t want to spend the money to sue him. He also said if the city still had its own regulatory court, something he said Mosca abandoned when he took office, then it could have addressed the issue more easily.

“As a citizen, I would be really frustrated,” he said.