Levee Project can move forward after Fifth Circuit ruling

Published 9:58 am Thursday, December 23, 2021

LAPLACE — A December 20 ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal allows for the expropriation of 364 acres of private land needed for the $760 million West Shore Lake Pontchartrain Levee construction.

Before construction contracts can be awarded to create access roads for the levee, the Pontchartrain Levee District must grant the Army Corps of Engineers an authorization for entry (AFE) signed by an assigned judge of the 40th Judicial District Court.

In its December stakeholder update, the Army Corps of Engineers stated that, if the AFE was not signed by December 23, bids for the access road work would have to be renegotiated or re-advertised with the potential for delays in road construction, pile load tests and pump station construction.

The potential for delays stemmed from a dispute over 364 acres of land privately owned by Nature Land Co. LLC. The Pontchartrain Levee District, a non-federal sponsor of the West Shore Levee project, went before the 40th Judicial District court in November to expropriate the land for $492,800.

Earlier this year, Nature Land filed a lawsuit claiming the state’s involuntary expropriation laws are unconstitutional. According to the suit, the proposed West Shore Levee alignment would limit access to half of Nature Land’s property and decrease the value of the other half, hindering future business operations.

Nature Land has previously allowed access to its property for soil testing and other steps to prepare for the West Shore Levee Project. The company had not set a value on the land prior to the Pontchartrain Levee District’s expropriation request to the court. An attorney for Nature Land stated that the company recognizes the importance of flood reduction projects and that the dispute is not over the value of the land, but making sure the government approaches the process fairly.

Earlier this week, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal found that 40th Judicial District Judge Vercell Fiffie acted erroneously by attempting to combine the expropriation request with Nature Land’s lawsuit.

In its writ application to the Court of Appeal, the Board of Commissioners for the Pontchartrain Levee District requested review of the trial court’s denial of the expropriation request.

A panel of Fifth Circuit judges comprised of Marc Johnson, Hans Liljeberg and Fredericka Wicker overturned the trial court’s decision.

The judgment states, “Accordingly, we grant the writ application filed by the Board of Commissioners for the Pontchartrain Levee District and remand to the trial court to enter an order of expropriation in accordance with La. R.S. 38:354 prior to December 23, 2021.”

In accordance with state law, the Pontchartrain Levee District must deposit money equal to the value of the property being expropriated into the court’s registry.

The land is valued at $492,800, according to the assessment of appraisers hired by the Pontchartrain Levee District.

All remaining contracts for the West Shore Lake Pontchartrain Levee Project are expected to be awarded in 2022, with the exception of contracts for the pump stations.

More information about the Levee Project can be found at www.mvn.usace.army.mil/About/Projects/BBA-2018/West-Shore-Lake-Pontchartrain/