BELLE CHASSE, La. -- Plaquemines Parish recently expanded its property holdings by approving the purchase of a 17-acre parcel on the Intracoastal Canal in Belle Chasse.
But the $130,000 purchase came as a surprise to some people who are familiar with the property as the site of the massive Belle Chasse Pumping Station.
Old land documents and the collective memory of the community tell the same story: Plaquemines Parish government has already occupied the land for decades.
Survey maps and old legal documents show that the parish has a “perpetual servitude” on the property. In layman’s terms, the parish can use the land for any public purpose it sees fit.
That has led some officials and community leaders to question the proposed purchase, as well as some of the political connections that surround it.
Councilman Kirk Lepine said that when council members voted 7-to-2 in March to approve the purchase, they weren’t informed about the decades-old servitude.
“That was kind of upsetting to find that,” Lepine said.
But the parish’s interests in this property aren’t just contained in a bunch of legal documents or historic use. This pumping station is currently undergoing a major upgrade, and an equipment storage warehouse was recently built on the property.
Lepine voted in favor of the purchase, but now says he has buyer’s remorse.
“I should have dug in a little bit deeper. I thought all the ducks were in a row, I guess. Obviously they weren’t,” he said.
The councilman took his share of the blame for not demanding more information about the deal.
“I guess we dropped the ball,” Lepine said. “I guess we have to investigate more and ask more questions.”
Lepine isn’t the only council member questioning the deal as it enters final negotiations before becoming final. Councilman Percy Griffin voted against the sale, but said he is bothered by the fact that the council was not told about the parish’s longstanding and unlimited use of the property.
“If we had all the details to that, supporting documents, I’m more than sure some red flags would have come up and some questions would have been asked,” Griffin said.
But while council members say there were left in the dark, several concerned citizens say they were able to dig up the same documents obtained by Channel 4.
Community activist Michelle Wilcox, with the watchdog group The Plaquemines Pulse, questioned why the administration didn’t give the council the full picture.
“As we found out, the servitude on there already belongs to the parish,” Wilcox said. “We’re just not quite sure why we would have to buy something that we have access to, to begin with. To me it would be like buying something twice. Why pay someone for it when we already have access to it and we’re using it?”
Former Parish President Benny Rousselle places equal blame on the administration and parish council.
“I think it’s a waste of taxpayers’ dollars,” Rousselle said. “I think somebody is asleep at the wheel in the legal department. And the council members need to step up and do some due diligence when they start acquiring property.”
Rousselle, Wilcox and others question if the administration was hiding more than just the servitude.
The ordinance approves the purchase from a company called Intracoastal Realty. But nowhere does it mention that Intracoastal is owned by the same people who own Barriere Construction, a longtime parish contractor.
“That’s a revelation that came later,” Rousselle said.
Campaign finance reports show that Barriere has been a regular contributor to Parish President Billy Nungesser. Nungesser’s 2008 campaign finance reports show two separate $1,000 contributions from the company.
“I think this administration in particular has moved in a direction to favor their political supporters and I don’t think they have the parish’s best interests at heart,” Rousselle said.
In a telephone interview, Nungesser said he didn’t know the details of the Barriere land deal. On the details of the proposed sale, Nungesser deferred to the parish legal department, which stated the deal is still under review.
“The parish is awaiting a title report and opinion on the entire property,” the legal department wrote in a statement. “The opinion will advise what property interests are outstanding, and the appraisal obtained by the parish will be revisited based on the results of the opinion.”
Channel 4 also received a written response from Barriere Construction. The company said its interest in selling the land arose just recently, after the parish built the large storage warehouse on the property. The company said liability concerns and the fact that the warehouse was built with FEMA funds sparked the negotiations.
“The position of Intracoastal’s owners is clear,” the company wrote. “The presence of the warehouse raised the issue of meeting the servitude agreements, as well as its potential liability. These two reasons are why discussions of a potential sale are underway.”