A state judge has halted work on a Lafayette drainage project until April.
At issue is a project by the Lafayette Consolidated Government that the city's engineers say is designed to ease flooding and drainage issues. But the property selected by LCG for the work has belonged to the same family for almost 100 years, and they don't believe it is the right location for drainage work - and they want it back.
A hearing started Thursday, with LCG arguing that the property is necessary for drainage work to ease flooding, and the property owners arguing that the government has no comprehensive plan and no proof that this project will help anyone's drainage at all.
As the hearing proceeded yesterday, each side called experts to testify in support of their position. LCG called engineer Pam Granger to testify as an expert, but Randall Smith, attorney for the property owners, questioned her ability to testify objectively about the project.
The hearing was recessed until this morning, and the judge advised Granger to talk to her own attorney about testifying. This morning, that attorney told the lawyers and the judge that Granger shouldn't testify until the issue is resolved. After that, the judge sent everyone home to do more research and said the hearing will resume in April.
Smith said his clients - and their expert, an engineer from Baton Rouge - do not believe this project will help anyone's drainage at all.
"We're challenging the taking of the land, because it's not a public necessity, not a public need. There are issues about whether this was thought out properly. About whether the permits that were necessary were done before taking this land," Smith said in an interview with KATC. "Our position is, if this is all for improved drainage and flood control, it doesn't seem to make any sense to take this land. It's some of the highest land in Lafayette. It didn't flood at all in 2016. They'll have to dig it down 10 feet to hold water. There's plenty of low-level land. Why are you destroying this land?"
Smith said LCG does not have permits for the work, "just like they didn't have permits in St. Martin Parish." He's referring to the decision this week by St. Martin Parish Government to sue LCG over work done in St. Martin Parish on the banks of the river. That action by LCG also is under investigation by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers right now. To read about that situation, click here and here.
Smith said his objection to Granger's testimony is related to her position on the project. It's not proper for LCG to rely on her opinion to prove the project is necessary if she's making money off of it, he said.
"She's been hired to manage the detention pond projects and has a public contract that's public record. She has a percentage interest in the contracts" and stands to gain financially from their completion, he said. "We think that's highly unusual and inappropriate."
Smith said that, more importantly, LCG doesn't have final engineering studies and doesn't have a comprehensive plan.
"That's what we've been arguing about for two days," he said.
"There is other land that may be more suitable, and no clear plans on what to do with the water coming in or out of those ponds, and no evidence it's going to make any difference whatsoever for flooding for the citizens of Lafayette," Smith continued. "There's no comprehensive plan in place, no permits in place. I applaud LCG for wanting to do something about drainage and flooding, and I know mayor has made a lot of campaign promises about this. But this is property that is high and dry, land that doesn't flood, and it should not be excavated to a low level to hold water, when there's no showing that that's going to accomplish anything other than deprive my clients of land that they, as a family, have owned for almost a century."
In a statement issued this afternoon, LCG states that "today’s action in no way indicates that the science and data proving the benefit of the drainage project is incorrect nor does it suggest that there were any improper actions related to the acquisition of the property."
"The Homewood Detention Ponds Project is part of the Bayou Vermilion Flood Control Project, which consists of a series of detention ponds to provide flooding resilience along and in association with the Vermilion River. The primary locations of these detention ponds are off Homewood Drive in the area of Bendel Road and Rue Fosse and along Duhon Road east of Micmac Lane and south of Ridge Road, all within Lafayette Parish," the statement reads.
It also quotes Mayor-President Josh Guillory as saying: “this case is about money, not science, and not law. We are confident that we obtained a fair appraisal and offered the landowners appropriate compensation. I assure you we will always act in the best interests of our taxpayers and citizens and will continue fighting to help protect lives and property, especially when it comes to flooding.”
"This is not a well-considered plan. It's too hasty. I don't know why the need was felt to jump the gun, to put the cart before the horse," he said.
In a similar case last fall, LCG lost a suit filed by a family of property owners. In that case, the court ruled that the city acted improperly in taking property for drainage ponds. In that case, the family alleged that LCG had clear cut their property and started digging ponds before they even filed a suit to take the property. LCG is appealing that case. To read about that, click here.
LCG says that, since work on the property in dispute was halted by the judge Friday, contractors will shift work to another part of the same project in of the vicinity of Coulee Ile Des Cannes.