Airport increasing anxiety for some citizens

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 20, 2001


PAULINA – Anxieties about the proposed new Intermodal Transport Center were in evidence at a meeting Monday night at the Paulina-Grand Point-Belmont Volunteer Fire Department. Though no site has been selected, and officially the project is still at the feasibility-study stage, there has been much talk about a mammoth transportation complex, linked to a regional airport, sited between the Sunshine Bridge and the Veterans Memorial Bridge. Planners say the center would require about 25,000 acres. Opponents see it as 25,000 acres of St. James Parish swallowed up by the empty promise of economic development and future prosperity. “We have to say no before they start looking at our area,” said Brenda Huget, a Convent resident and one of the spokespersons for the opposition group, St. James United. “Ascension has voted on it and they said they are for the airport – provided that it is not in Ascension Parish. St. Charles said the same thing. St. John said they do not want it on the east bank, but they may some of them want it on the west bank. “I don’t want it on the west bank or the east bank, because whether it is in my back yard or my front yard, it will still be flying over my house.” At the heart of opposition to the project, supported by the Louisiana Aviation Authority and others, stand a number of resident’s concerns. Economic development, especially in a parish fighting double-digit unemployment, is an argument frequently used by business and political leaders in the area. But the same rural qualities that in some ways limit the area’s economic prospects in other ways contribute importantly to the very quality of life of St. James. “I have been living here for 15 years,” said Ricky Bourgeois of Grand Point. “I’m not for this airport because I live right here. I’m just totally against it. We don’t need it. This airport will totally uproot us and destroy our way of life.” Belmont resident Kurt Roussel said St. James United came into being because the people of Belmont, Convent, Gramercy, Grand Point, Hester, Lutcher and Paulina felt the project threatens their sense of home and their cultural history which spans many generations. “What happened,” Roussel explained, “was we talked about it and I was concerned about the airport and the next parish council meeting I saw a map that was developed by the LA 1 Coalition, an independent group supporting the project. It shows what they predict for St. James Parish, and when you look at it what they want is between 25,000 and 35,000 acres from St. James Parish.” Roussel’s group is keeping a close eye on regular session House Bill 2008 which, he says, would give the Louisiana Aviation Authority the right to expropriate properties “necessary or proper for the construction or efficient operation of any airport or airport facility or access thereto under its jurisdiction pursuant to the procedure provided through the expropriation laws of the state.” “The governor is in it too,” added Huget. “The governor has already come out in support of this airport between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. But right now this bill is stuck in the house transportation committee, and Tulane University is looking up the expropriation laws of the state.” Besides trying to read the politics, opponents have formulated a number of specific objections. The very size of the project is one source of concern. Another is that aspects of the project will result in environmental degradation, rather than the “environomics” lauded by the LA 1 Coalition in their “A Vision for the State of Louisiana,” a vision that includes the proposed airport as a key component. Opponents suggested, for example, that the planned “conveyance channels” would cause salt-water intrusion, coastal erosion, and loss of wetlands. The residents are also worried the economic benefits may be exaggerated, and that if there are benefits, they may go to out-of-parish, even out-of-Louisiana, interests. The residents also complained that such a massive undertaking could only mean taking decisions about development out of local hands in a way that robs people of the parish of control over their own destiny. “I am against a project so big,” said St. James Parish Council member Wilson Malbrough, “because it would rule the progress of economic growth. And it would destroy St. James. Twenty years from now we’ll be just like Atlanta.” Members of the council seem divided in their sympathies with some taking a wait-and-see attitude. “We are dealing with the federal government and billionaire backers,” said Malbrough, “and money talks.” Councilman Ralph Patin Jr. offered a foreboding forecast: “I think we are going to get screwed and relocated.”