Legal battle continues over zoning of Wallace land

Published 12:03 am Wednesday, August 30, 2023

LAPLACE — The future remains unclear for a tract of land in Wallace at the center of a legal battle between industry, St. John Parish, and environmentalist group The Descendants Project.

Earlier this month, Judge J. Sterling Snowdy declared a contested 1990 ordinance null and void, returning the land from industrial to its original residential zoning. The ruling, which has major implications for the proposed construction of Greenfield Louisiana’s grain terminal, referenced the fact that the Parish Council passed an amended version of the ordinance in April 1990 without first submitting the amended text to the Planning Commission for review and recommendation.

During a meeting on August 22, 2023 a resolution was passed with a 6-3 vote, authorizing the Parish Council to move forward with amending the official zoning map.

One day prior to the August 22 meeting, Judge Nghana Lewis of the 40th Judicial District Court signed a temporary restraining order prohibiting the St. John the Baptist Parish Council from affirming or taking action under the 1990 ordinance.

William Most, attorney for the Descendants Project, argued that the Parish Council violated the temporary restraining order by approving a resolution that “wishes to affirm” the nullified industrial zoning ordinance. During a court hearing on August 25, Lewis ruled that the protections of the temporary restraining order will continue on an on-going basis in the form of a preliminary injunction as the matter moves through the court system.

“We are extremely disappointed that the Parish Council would violate a court order that was literally on the dais in front of them. We will do what is necessary to bring accountability for that violation,” Most said.

Councilman Kurt Becnel, who introduced the resolution, sought to correct a mistake that was made more than 30 years ago.

“We all know the judgement was recently passed that indicated the past council did not properly rezone this piece of property,” he said.

“It is incumbent upon us and our duty and responsibility to remediate the error of the past. This resolution gives the administration the authority to facilitate the amendment of the zoning map in accordance with the established procedures and process mandated in St. John the Baptist Parish code regarding rezoning of property in consideration and recommendation of the Parish Planning Commission and ultimately in the final approval or denial by the Council.”

After receiving a phone call from a concerned citizen, Councilman At-Large Lennix Madere wanted to make it clear that the resolution had no legal authority to change the zoning of the land in question. Instead, it was a means to restart the process.

“As it stands now, the land is exactly where it is was in 1990 (before Ordinance 90-27 was passed),” Madere said, explaining the matter must first go before the Planning Commission before returning to the Parish Council for a vote.

Madere added, “The judge did not rule that the land cannot be changed again. He just said the process must start all over again, and citizens will have the opportunity to object just like they had in 1990.”

The Parish’s legal counsel declared the resolution to be legally sufficient.

“Words matter. Effective comprehension of the English language matters. Understanding of the St. John the Baptist Parish Home Rule Charter and Code of Ordinances matters as well,” said Keith Green of the St. John District Attorney’s Office.

Councilwoman Tonia Schnyder made a motion to table the matter until the resolution could be revised with “clearer language.” Her motion failed 6-3.

“As it reads, we are affirming the action taken (in 1990), and they were taking it to I-3 zoning,” Schnyder said. “I think that’s why the confusion is here. The way it reads is very confusing.”

Councilman Warren Torres questioned the need for the resolution.

“If we are going to follow what’s in the books right now, why do we need this resolution?” he asked. “It looks like we are going against what the judge laid down.”

Another court hearing has been set for September 14.

The Descendants Project shared the following statement following last Friday’s hearing: “For the second time in three weeks, the courts have ruled to protect our historic community from harmful development. Today, we call on the St. John the Baptist Parish Council to do the right and just thing moving forward by ensuring this land properly remains zoned as residential for future generations.”

Despite the current residential zoning status, a Greenfield Louisiana spokesperson has stated that the company is “fully committed to resolving this issue and moving forward with plans to build the grain export facility, including by proceeding with the ongoing permitting process.”