Lawsuit over industrial zoning ordinance to move forward

Published 12:06 am Saturday, December 18, 2021

EDGARD — Opponents of a proposed grain terminal in Wallace will continue fighting to declare a 1990 industrial zoning ordinance null and void.

The Honorable J. Sterling Snowdy did not issue an immediate ruling on the zoning ordinance during a court hearing held Thursday. However, Snowdy recognized the significance of the case to the community and ruled that the lawsuit may move forward.

Representatives of the Descendants Project, a nonprofit advocating for descendants of people once enslaved in the River Parishes, say the residents of Wallace are now faced with the construction of a grain elevator in their quiet community as a direct result of an injustice that happened more than three decades ago.

On November 9, the Descendants Project and the Center for Constitutional Rights asked the District Court to file a writ of mandamus declaring a 1990 rezoning ordinance null and void and for St. John the Baptist Parish to remove it from all of its maps and records.

The 31-year-old Ordinance 90-27 rezoned a tract of farmland in Wallace from residential to industrial use. Former Parish President Lester Millet Jr. was convicted of extortion and money laundering in 1996 for his efforts to assist Formosa Plastics Group in locating a rayon pump facility in Wallace. The Court of Appeals cited that these efforts included convincing nearby property owners, through illegal means, to convey their property to Formosa.

Plans for the rayon facility eventually fell through, but not before the Wallace tract was rezoned for industrial use in April 1990.

The St. John the Baptist Parish Council replied to the writ of mandamus on December 9, opposing the memorandum. On December 10, Greenfield Louisiana LLC intervened in the case by filing a memorandum in opposition to the Descendants Project’s mandamus.

While some Wallace residents fear health impacts and disruption that industrial development could bring to their community, others see the grain terminal as a safe way to usher economic development into the region.

Lou Buatt, legal counsel for Greenfield Louisiana LLC, stated that the court’s denial of the mandamus Thursday afternoon was a big win that brings the company “one step closer to bringing 100 safe, healthy, quality paying and permanent jobs to the West Bank.”

“The court agreed with us, and that’s good for the residents of the community who want to leave behind the old ways of doing business,” Buatt said.

In a press release, Greenfield stated its mission is to create the world’s most efficient and sustainable grain handling and logistics network for the future of agriculture. The company says it remains committed to meeting the needs of the West Bank community and living by a “Local First” policy that includes local hires, as well as educational and scholarship programs for West St. John high school students emerging into the workforce.

“Local First means prioritizing the health and safety of every member of the West Bank family, while also energizing the local economy,” Greenfield stated in a press release.

The Descendants Project organizer and local business owner Joy Banner understood that the mandamus to nullify the zoning was a drastic measure. While Thursday’s ruling meant the zoning will not be immediately addressed, Banner is pleased to be able to continue the legal proceedings.

“That would have been a big ask to get it nullified. However, we feel that the extent of the corruption that Lester Millet was convicted of warranted an extreme reaction,” Banner said. “We were very happy with the fact that we can continue on with our legal proceedings. That was a big win for us. The judge knew this was a concern for us, so he wanted it to be done as expeditiously as possible. He verified that we certainly have a case and there was evidence to reflect that some illegal actions that happened that are impacting our livelihoods now.”

Banner said it was disappointing that Greenfield did not have its community representatives present during Thursday’s court proceedings to address residents’ concerns. She added that this case is not only about justice for the people of Wallace, but also about creating visibility to decisions impacting small communities along a Louisiana corridor known colloquially as “Cancer Alley.”

“As this continues to be in the limelight, I think it continues to give us a stronger case,” Banner said.

The lawsuit also calls attention to inconsistencies in zoning maps that appear on the parish website and inside the parish government complex.
“Zoning is there ultimately for our protection. If you can’t establish with the zoning maps what is correct, what is not correct, what your buffer zone is or isn’t, then how can you ensure that we, the members of the public, are safe?” Banner said. “Until that gets worked out, the parish residents are in a precarious position…Whether you feel Greenfield directly impacts you or not, this case impacts everyone in the parish, and you should be concerned.”