Court ruling allows Wallace zoning lawsuit to move forward

Published 1:04 pm Friday, April 29, 2022

LAPLACE — A ruling by Judge J. Sterling Snowdy of the 40th Judicial District Court will allow for the continuation of a lawsuit concerning the zoning of land being used for the development of a $400 million grain elevator in Wallace.

Representing The Descendants Project, twin sisters Jo and Joy Banner are suing St. John the Baptist Parish over what they call a corrupt zoning of the land for industrial use.

The zoning in question dates back to 1990, when Ordinance 90-27 rezoned a tract of farmland from residential to industrial use to make way for Formosa Plastics Group to locate a rayon pump facility in Wallace. Plans for the rayon facility fell through following the rezoning, and Lester Millet Jr., the parish president at the time, was convicted of extortion and money laundering for his efforts to assist Formosa. The Court of Appeals cited that these efforts included convincing nearby property owners, through illegal means, to convey their property to Formosa.

Greenfield Louisiana, the company that purchased the land in July 2021 for the development of a grain terminal, intervened in the lawsuit in support of St. John Parish. The lawsuit was initially filed as a writ of mandamus in November 2021, with petitioners seeking to immediately invalidate the 31-year-old zoning ordinance.

In December 2021, the 40th Judicial District Court ruled that, while the lawsuit may proceed, the writ of mandamus was an inappropriate process. The parties were allowed to amend their petitions to ordinary proceedings, and a hearing was set for April 28, 2022.

During Thursday’s hearing in Edgard, Judge Snowdy indicated that he will deny Greenfield Louisiana’s arguments for dismissing the case in a written ruling within the next 10 days.

Louis E. Buatt, legal counsel for Greenfield, said Snowdy noted that the statute of limitations on the ordinance in question may be relevant moving forward.

“Greenfield is moving forward with our project after earning overwhelming support from the community, the Port and public officials on our effort to bring clean jobs and tax support for the residents. These procedural attempts to hold up immense benefits to the community, will not have a central impact in our opinion. We believe that our legal position on support of the parish is very sound, and we are moving forward,” Buatt said. “While we respect the court’s ruling, we will file with the fifth circuit court of appeals.”

Joy Banner of The Descendants Project spoke to followers of the “Stop the Wallace Grain Elevator” campaign via Facebook Live following Thursday’s court proceedings. She called the ruling a big win for the West Bank and was very excited to see the momentum the community brought to the courthouse.

“What was really so powerful was the amount of people who came out and were in the courtroom today. You could feel the energy, the love and support,” Banner said. “In addition to the support and the outpouring of love, our legal team was on the ball with arguing why this should continue on.”

The Banner sisters are represented by Pam Spees of the Center for Constitutional Rights, an organization committed to the use of law as a positive force for social change.

In addition to contesting the industrial zoning, the lawsuit also draws into question the impacts of environmental risks associated with the construction and operation of a grain elevator.

“It doesn’t mean we are against progress,” Banner said. “Many of us have been advocating for these other sources of economics that would fit well with this region and don’t even get considered…We want to broaden our availability of different careers that are in demand and just have happy, peaceful and safe communities.”

The Descendants Project has hosted film industry training opportunities and will soon host a free workshop series on grant writing.

Greenfield Louisiana plans to bring 500 construction jobs and 100 permanent jobs to the community. The company maintains its facility will be designed to be environmentally safe beyond industry standards.

Port of South Louisiana executive director Paul Matthews recently expressed his support for the Greenfield project, noting the need for grain is anticipated to grow as a result of the war in Ukraine.

St. John the Baptist Parish, named in the lawsuit over the Wallace zoning, is unable to comment on pending litigation.