Dr. Montegut prepares land development plan for Council: River Forest residents speak out against rezoning
Published 11:29 am Saturday, August 22, 2020
LAPLACE — Dr. Christy Montegut is working with AIMS Goup Inc. in Metairie to come up with a plan for future land development for a 162-acre lot of family land near the River Forest subdivision.
This plan will be presented to the Parish Council at the Aug. 25 meeting to continue the discussion on a controversial request for rezoning that has drawn the ire of more than 200 River Forest residents fearful of negative impacts on property value.
Montegut is seeking the rezoning of a plot of family land from Commercial District Three and Residential to Rural District, which would allow him to dig six to seven dirt pits. The goal would be to become part of a federally approved list of locations that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could solicit for the procurement of dirt materials in the West Shore Levee construction.
The St. John Parish Council voted 5-4 on Aug. 11 to table the item and give Montegut an opportunity to present additional information.
Many River Forest residents are apprehensive about what would happen to the land after the clay is extracted. Eddie Ganucheau, former president of the River Forest Homeowner’s Association, feels the situation wasn’t handled with the transparency residents deserve.
Residents became aware of the potential rezoning in June, months after the permit application process reportedly began. Ganucheau said the public received no indication of plans for the land prior to Montegut appearing before the Parish Council.
Adjoining landowner Jan Sutton said St. John Parish will be burdened with “unsightly, hazardous and ill-planned” industrial sized pits if the rezoning is approved.
“The pits will no longer generate any income for the Tract C owners after the clay and other mined materials are depleted and sold,” Sutton said in a letter to the Parish Council. “After mining depletion, 119 acres on Lot C will most likely be a worthless liability. Thus, the owners will have no incentive to properly maintain the pits. It is very possible that, one day, the Parish and City of LaPlace may have to assume all liabilities and maintenance.”
Ganucheau also noted that the Willow Bend Ventures LLC dirt pit in Edgard is a cautionary tale of what could happen to the land without any parish-regulated accountability measures in place.
“To this day, the parish is trying to recoup the tax dollars that are owned. Willow Bend Ventures is an abandoned pit right now. It is overgrown and it is full of slime and algae. That happens because there is nothing to guarantee what happens to land three years, four years, five years after they are done digging the dirt out of it,” Ganucheau said.
According to Ganucheau, other parishes such as Jefferson require project developers to put up a bond related to the value of the project so there is financial accountability.
“Our main concern is that the parish has nothing in place to hold Dr. Montegut to any of his claims about what he would do with the land after,” Ganucheau said. “Dr. Montegut has given us nothing in terms of how he’s going to take care of the pond or what he’s going to do with the pond afterwards. He didn’t notify the abutting landowners. He’s not given us anything besides empty promises and lip service.”
According to Ganucheau, there is also a potential ethical dilemma of Councilman Robbie Arcuri participating in the vote to rezone since his brother and son work closely with Montegut.
Arcuri did not wish to publically comment on anything regarding the rezoning prior to Tuesday’s Council meeting.
L’OBSERVATEUR reached out to Montegut this week to hear his vision for the property, which will be explained in greater detail during the Aug. 25 Council meeting. While plans were still being formed as of press time, Montegut said the best future use of the land after the West Shore Levee Construction would include residential development or a linear park.
“AIMS Engineering in Metairie is coordinating the design of the clay pits and working on a layout for a possible subdivision around that area,” Montegut said. “We’re envisioning that these lakes and ponds would be very attractive for residential development. That would put the land in commerce and increase revenue for the parish. It could be quite attractive, similar to Belle Terre’s lakes.”
Montegut clarified that these are long-term plans since the West Shore Levee construction is projected to last at least another four years. The levee worksite is near where the pits would be located, making it very difficult to secure residential development in the near future.
“Right now, there’s no way you can get any kind of developer to commit to residential development five years from now, which is what people seem to want us to do,” Montegut said. “This is five to 10 years in the future.”
Montegut said he is not planning to abandon the property or leave it in disarray.
River Forest resident Ron Ferraro feels a detailed game plan for the project should have been finalized well in advance of the Aug. 11 Council meeting.
Ferraro wants to know if Montegut has hired a contractor and conducted environmental and mosquito control studies. He questioned whether there are safety measures in place to prevent children from falling into the pits and whether Montegut has money set aside in case something goes wrong with the project.
“I built my house in River Forest in 1978. We’ve been there 42 years. Had my wife and I built a house when the clay pits were already there, then shame on us if we didn’t like it,” Ferraro said. “But we’ve been there 42 years, so why should we have to live next to that unknown? There are too many unknown, unanswered questions.”
Ferraro is also skeptical that the pits would help with River Forest’s flooding and drainage issues.
“That elevation is higher than River Forest, and you can’t drain uphill,” Ferraro said.
Montegut stated that as long as there are holes in the ground, there will be less rainwater run-off to flood the River Forest subdivision.
“It won’t increase flooding as some of those residents are claiming falsely. Our engineers say that’s impossible,” Montegut said.
Montegut added that the dirt pits can help the area by alleviating dump truck traffic on Airline Highway during the levee construction. He said the worksite will be easily accessible from the dirt pits and will not require as much travel on major roadways.
Planning and Zoning Director Rene Pastorek has stated that the rezoning is only the first step to receiving approval to operate a dirt pit; there are additional regulations to meet including a coastal use permit issued by the parish, submittal of a storm water management plan and approval of the dirt pit as a conditional use by the Parish Council.
“Approval by the parish is not approval for use of the dirt. That’s really up to the Corps, depending on if they need it or not,” Pastorek said.