Its $60 million detention project in legal jeopardy, Lafayette asks for more state money

Flood events in Lafayette, especially the devastating floods of 2016, have LCG moving quickly to address residents' concerns ahead of the next big storm. But questions remain about how much benefit the tens of millions it is spending will have. Photo by Travis Gauthier

The gist: Lafayette Consolidated Government is once again at the state trough for the $60 million Bayou Vermilion Flood Control project currently halted by court order. LCG has asked for $23 million in the 2022 state budget, on top of $27 million awarded last year. 

Get caught up, quickly. In an effort to do something — anything — about drainage, the Guillory administration has authorized $150 million in drainage projects, mainly detention ponds, with little pushback or skepticism on the part of the councils or the public. The state is shouldering a chunk of that investment.  

LCG pitched the BVFC project as benefiting multiple parishes in last year’s request to the state seeking $35 million to build the Homewood Drive detention project on 370 acres north of Milton. The filing claimed a regional impact that could benefit up to 150,000 people

“This project will reduce the 100-year water surface elevation by 5 inches for 25 miles along the channel,” the outlay request reads. “The original impact of this project will benefit multiple jurisdictions along the Bayou Vermilion, including Lafayette, Vermilion, St. Martin, and St. Landry [p]arishes.”

At the time, LCG estimated that the initial phase of the Homewood project would cost $44.4 million, with a $9.4 million local funding match to close the gap. The state ended up awarding LCG $26.6 million on limited modeling on the benefits of the largest component of the project, the private farmland owned by the Bendel family heirs. 

Homewood represents LCG’s second attempt at using the state’s quick-take law to seize private property for a drainage project by declaring it a “public necessity” — and the second time the legal maneuver lands it in a court battle over property rights. LCG lost the first case and is appealing; the Homewood case is ongoing.

Now, LCG is asking the state for more money for its detention efforts, seeking $23 million this budget cycle for the BVFC in a request submitted on Oct. 27. “This project will reduce the 100-year water surface elevation anywhere from 5 to 15 inches along 25 miles of the bayou,” LCG writes in a slightly edited narrative of the project that increases the potential benefit by 10 inches

Two studies commissioned by LCG contradict that claim. Modeling by UL Lafayette (read the study here) projected the Homewood project would reduce water levels on the Vermilion by less than 1 inch in a storm event akin to those that flooded Lafayette in August 2016. Most of the benefit realized by Homewood was localized, stretching six miles along the Vermilion, not 25. The biggest reduction was 5 inches, found in a much smaller, 10-year rain event. Modeling by LCG’s consulting engineering firm, McBade Engineers & Consultants, corroborates UL’s findings on 10-year events and reports no figures for a 100-year event. (Read the McBade study here.)

The project is nevertheless underway. Two ponds have been dug and a third was under construction when a district judge halted the Homewood work earlier this month. LCG has yet to conduct a cost-benefit analysis on its detention plan, choosing instead to move ahead at a frenetic pace.

Public records reviewed by The Current shed little light on how LCG is able to claim these benefits in its capital outlay requests, both endorsed by state Sen. Page Cortez of Lafayette, and no additional studies have been produced since those submissions or in the court battle over the land expropriated to support the Homewood ponds.

It’s unclear whether LCG would have to return any state money if the Bendel Partnership, which owns the Homewood property, prevails in court. 

Cortez did not return a text message seeking comment on whether he would support holding off on additional state outlay funding until the Homewood issue plays out in court. 

Flimsy estimates have done the heavy lifting. When pressed in a deposition about the April 2021 submission to the state, LCG engineer Jessica Cornay acknowledged that the potential 150,000 people who might benefit was nothing more than a back-of-the-napkin estimate gleaned from “the approximate population of Lafayette that ranged to the river.” 

“Cart before the horse.” It’s a common refrain from the attorneys representing the 30 or so Bendel family members fighting the expropriation of their land for the Homewood detention ponds. For example, the attorneys pointed out that LCG does not have a comprehensive stormwater management plan and noted that residents in adjacent neighborhoods asked the councils to delay the March 2021 “public necessity” vote until engineering work could be completed. Mayor-President Josh Guillory said at the time that if final engineering was not completed in 90 days he would author a repeal of the ordinance. 

“What we don’t know is if this project would actually even work, so we don’t have the science or engineering. We have preliminary science; we have preliminary engineering,” Guillory said at the City Council meeting. “If we can’t have that [engineering] within 90 days, I’ll introduce a joint ordinance repealing the necessity ordinance. I think that would at least put everybody’s mind at ease.”

What’s next: The state engineering board will decide Monday whether project engineer Pam Granger of McBade can testify as an expert witness for LCG, a controversy that stopped court proceedings and work on the property in mid-March. More than a year after the councils declared the property a “public necessity,” Granger, whose contract is worth up to $3.6 million, has yet to complete and stamp her engineering plans. “LCG does not have any plans for this project as of yet,” City-Parish Attorney Greg Logan’s office wrote in response to The Current’s March 18 request for construction plans, specifications and construction documents on the Homewood project.  

Guillory, rather than author a repeal of the ordinance as he promised, has instead kept the project on a fast track, citing his commitment to a “new pace of government.” Court resumes April 6.