Airport project under serious consideration

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 24, 2002


ST. ROSE – A massive $2-5 billion intermodal airport is under serious consideration by state and local agencies north of Airline Drive and James Business Park and public comment is being sought during the next few weeks.

The project, “St. Charles International Airport,” would transform nearly 7,943 acres of marsh and create a world-class airport to handle cargo and passengers. At the same time, an 11,500-acre marsh habitat would be created north of the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad and Lake Pontchartrain, walled by a new lakeshore hurricane protection levee, more than five and a half miles in length.

The application adds that 4,253 acres of swamp habitat and 4,940 acres of open water habit may be affected by this project.

Earl Matherne, coastal zone manager for St. Charles Parish, called the project “enormous,” and added, “This would change the character of the parish.”

Matherne, in his role, continued it would be his duty to oppose destruction of thousands of acres of wetlands. However, the mitigation requirements for such a major project could affect wetlands across the parish.

“It’s the boldest plan I’ve ever seen for LaBranche,” Matherne said.

At the same time, at least two subdivisions in St. Rose would likely have to be removed, including Oakland Estates and Fairfield Plantation Oaks Subdivision.

Yet, owners of lots in the so-called “paper subdivisions” developed in the 1960s and 1970s north of Airline Drive may leap at the opportunity to unload their questionable purchases.

That includes lots in Singing Shores, Monte Verde and Lakeland Gardens, all on charts in the parish planning office but never developed because of wetland protection laws.

When the project was first announced, the main thing Matherne heard was: “Is he serious?”

But he added, “You cannot dust this off as something which couldn’t happen. This is a parish-changing project. The main question is: At what cost?”

The parish Coastal Zone Management Commission is due to meet Jan. 31, and Matherne expects this application will be on the agenda, seeking advice for what will become the St. Charles Parish Council’s opinion – whether to offer a letter of no objection or of objection.

The permit application caught many by surprise, not the least of whom was Parish President Albert Laque, who commented, “Isn’t that a shocking thing? It’s really flabbergasting. I don’t know whether it’s a pipe dream or what.”

He added, however, “I’d really like to talk to somebody from the outfit, just to know what’s going on.”

Sen. Joel Chaisson II of Destrehan added, “It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of. I’m totally opposed to this and I’ll do everything in my power to keep it from happening.”

Marshland preservationist Milton Cambre of Norco, who has fought for years to protect and enhance the LaBranche Wetlands, added, “It’s like I was going back in time 35 years. It was a big, big surprise. A bad surprise.”

Ed Fike, projects manager for Coastal Environments Inc. of Baton Rouge, agent for the applicant, stressed this is a serious project.

“We think this is a positive project with significant economic benefit to the region,” Fike said in an earlier interview. As for public comment thus far, “It’s been quiet, really. I’ve had a couple of callers, mostly from those undeveloped subdivisions in the area, wanting to know how they may be affected.”

On the other hand, Roger Swindler of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said as of last count, he’s received 10 calls, with all but one against the very notion.

The 30-day public comment period began Wednesday. At the same time, the state Department of Environmental Quality opened its own 30-day public comment period. The state Department of Natural Resources opens its 25-day public comment period soon, upon publication of the official notice in The Advocate in Baton Rouge.

The proposed St. Charles International Airport would require construction of five new runways and accompanying taxiways, lowering a portion of the presently elevated Interstate 310 to allow for takeoffs to pass over the highway, either grade reduction of the railroad bisecting the property or abandonment of the track itself, a new terminal facility to receive international passengers, a new I-310 cloverleaf for freight movement and passengers and a forced-drainage system to protect the entire facility.

A lakefront hurricane protection levee nearly six miles in length would extend from the Jefferson Parish line west to Bayou LaBranche along a right-of-way purchased for that purpose in 1971, and a flood protection levee nearly 10 miles in length would parallel most of Cross Bayou Canal south to Airline Drive.

The applicants claim unless something is done soon, most of the wetlands will convert to open water from the effects of saltwater intrusion from the lake. Between 1956 and 1998, Coastal Environments estimated that 5,050 acres of wetlands converted to open water, an annual estimated loss of 120 acres.

William Monteleone said he owns 50 percent of the total site, with the rest split between the Edgar Monroe Foundation and the George Burgess Trust.

However, he continued, “This project can’t be accomplished without the people desiring it to occur.”

Fike estimated the permit process for the project would be “very lengthy – it would probably take two to five years.”

“I’m sure there will be opposition,” he added.

To contact Roger Swindler with the Corps of Engineers, call 504-862-2278 and refer to COE file EM-20-020-0969. To contact Tim Robertson with the Department of Natural Resources, call 225-342-7472 and refer to CUP number P20011061. To contact Melanie Bauder with the Department of Environmental Quality, call 225-765-0664.