ST. BERNARD, LA -- On a plot of land in St. Bernard, flags still mark the area where construction workers can't build.
That's because the Corps of Engineers found that site was home to about one third of an acre of vital wetlands after construction had already begun on controversial mixed-income housing there.
Corps and parish officials issued cease and desist orders for that portion of the development last week.
One week later, St. Bernard Parish president Craig Taffaro signed cease and desist orders to stop construction on all four sites, even though the developer, Provident Realty, and the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center filed a restraining order late Wednesday night in federal court, barring the parish from taking any action to stop the development..
"The realty is this," said Taffaro. "Ceasing and desisting these four projects may temporarily delay it. Maybe there's a way to hold them up long enough that our local voice can be heard."
But the restraining order isn't the only legal issue the parish has to deal with. Thursday afternoon, a group of citizens filed a state lawsuit against the parish for issuing building permits for the four mixed income housing sites in the first place.
The suit alleges the parish had to break its own laws in order to issue the permits. Taffaro agreed, saying a federal judge forced the parish to issue permits for the project after the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center filed suit. It said the parish was discriminating against minorities because it didn't provide for enough mixed-income housing.
After the permits were granted, Provident Realty allowed them to expire. The office of Housing and Urban Development then threatened to pull millions of dollars in recovery money from the state and the parish if the permits weren't reissued, even though St. Bernard officials said they had to sidestep parish rules to do so.
"We have lots of questions, lots of issues that need to be addressed, and I feel it would be in the best interest of everyone if the work is completely halted until all questions are answered," Dana Arcement, a vocal opponent of the mixed income housing units who initiated the latest lawsuit.
"The issue is whether or not we have the right to govern ourselves," said Taffaro. "The issue is whether or not a federal system, whether in the judicial or administrative section of the federal government, has the right and the authority to set aside local and state laws and dictate actions.
As for the wetlands, a Corps spokesman said the agency knew they existed at that location, but was under the impression that Provident Realty would build next to them, not on top of them.
HUD also filed a complaint against St. Bernard Parish weeks ago. Parish officials said negotiations came to a stop Wednesday night, putting billions of state and federal recovery dollars in jeopardy. HUD officials said they should know more about where the process is going next week.
St. Bernard officials will appear before a federal jude Friday to discuss the restraining order. They will appear before a state judge next week to discuss the latest lawsuit.