Inside Report for Nov. 14, 2012

The large-scale coastal restoration projects included in the state’s master plan for coastal restoration and protection will impact the way people live and work in south Louisiana. Although science will play a large role in what gets built, how it gets built and where, people living in south Louisiana and elsewhere have an interest in that process as well.

Since 1970, when President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act, there has been a process in place that allows for public comment on many major projects.

However, a concern about this process, and other public comment opportunities on large projects, is that the public can comment on a plan only after it’s been formed instead of being allowed a chance for input throughout the process. That’s starting to change.

Patty Whitney, community organizer with Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing, praised recent efforts by the state to include the public in planning for the state’s master plan for coastal restoration and protection as a change from past practices.

“We’re paying the price because we’ve never been part of the planning process,” she said during the State of The Coast conference in New Orleans on June 26.

The Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing is a faith-based nonprofit group that works in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes to help communities organize to address local concerns.

“Public comment is after the fact,” she said. “It limits access to the general public. This promotes adversarial roles.”

Instead, public involvement means talking to the people who live and work in the area and using that local knowledge for the benefit of the project. Those conversations need to happen throughout the process, she said.

To get individuals involved at the beginning of the process saves time and money in the long run, as opposed to having people get upset when they see the developed plan for the first time. If they’re involved, they may not agree with the entire outcome, but at least they’ll have a better understanding of how that endpoint was reached, she said.

Whitney said the practice of limited public input seems to be changing, pointing to the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority’s work on the master plan as an example. She praised state officials for the effort they made to include public input throughout the planning process and showing through the plan that they listened and considered those comments and advice.

The release of the state’s master plan for coastal restoration and protection prior to being presented to the state legislature for approval was a tense time because some areas of the coast saw very little activity in their areas included in the plan, but ultimately the master plan passed through the state Legislature unanimously.

Whitney said that’s the value of getting public input and not just after-the-fact comments.

If you reach out to the public, you get new allies, she said, noting that the Coastal Planning and Protection Authority found that out when the master plan was presented to the state Legislature for approval. Although not every area got everything it wanted, people understood what had gone into the process, “and those new allies helped push through the master plan that passed through the state Legislature unanimously,” she said.

Amy Wold is an environmental reporter at The Advocate. She can be reached at awold@theadvocate.com.