Lafayette’s ‘new pace’ of government lands its drainage strategy in court

LCG is again using the state's quick-take law to seize nearly 375 acres of farmland along the Vermilion River just north of Milton for the $30 million Homewood Regional Detention Pond, part of its Bayou Vermilion Flood Control project. The property owners are fighting in court this week to keep the land.

Josh Guillory wants to change the pace of government. He’s not shy about it. Drainage issues, particularly after the devastation brought on by the massive storm event of 2016 and more damage from 2019, have been top of mind for him. 

“I was put here to do action. I was not put here to feed into bureaucracy,” the Lafayette mayor-president said on KPEL last week, defending a controversial decision to purchase property in St. Martin Parish and secretly remove decades-old spoils from the banks of the Vermilion River, allowing rain water to again flow into Cypress Island swamp during a storm event. “We’ve studied, studied, studied,” Guillory continued. “The alternative is to go with the old pace, and I don’t think anybody wants us to go with the old pace.

“I think this new pace, as long as it’s responsible … as long as we have checks and balances and we do our due diligence, we execute.”

Doing something — anything — about Lafayette’s drainage problems could be a political win for Guillory, giving him fodder for the campaign trail next year and bragging rights that he accomplished what his predecessors could not. And it is what many of his constituents, still traumatized by the 2016 floods, demand. 

The Guillory administration has answered with a hawkish approach: authorizing $150 million in drainage projects with little pushback or skepticism on the part of the councils. Scrutiny of that effort, instead, is ongoing in court. And while Guillory frames his approach as a way of cutting red tape, two of those cases allege Lafayette Consolidated Government is running roughshod over property rights. 

LCG faces millions of dollars in legal liability from two lawsuits over land seized for drainage projects. The outcomes hinge in no small part on whether LCG has thoroughly justified its attack. A third suit now looms, after St. Martin Parish — a partner in regional flood mitigation — vowed on Tuesday to call for investigations and sue anyone involved in the furtive soil removal. 

What’s more, LCG’s program is moving ahead of completing a comprehensive stormwater plan, which it hired Baton Rouge-based CSRS Inc. to do only last year. (By contrast, East Baton Rouge Parish is five years into its stormwater master plan, developed by HNTB Corporation.) Lacking the plan has been weaponized in court to oppose LCG’s “quick take” seizure of private property, where plaintiffs say LCG failed to properly analyze or study how effective its projects are. 

In November, a district judge ruled that LCG had improperly applied Louisiana’s quick-take statute in taking land from the Randol family heirs for the Lake Farm Road detention project, failing to prove the project was a public necessity. The law allows local governments to seize private property under certain conditions for road, drainage and bridge projects.

In what marked its first use of Louisiana’s 2018 quick-take law, LCG expropriated more than 16 acres at the corner of Republic Avenue and Lake Farm Road to ease flooding in Kingshaven subdivision near Beaullieu Park and immediately cleared it and began excavation work. The property owners objected to the seizure, and a judge ruled in their favor in November.

“All of the experts that testified at trial are of the belief that a comprehensive parish wide drainage plan would be beneficial,” District Judge Michelle Breaux wrote in her ruling, adding that “testimony at trial did not include a true cost for acquisition of the Randol property.” The judge also seized on the fact that LCG considered only two land options, one the Randol property at the corner of Republic Avenue and Lake Farm Road, “among 70 other identifiable sites.”

At the time of that decision, hundreds of thousands of dollars in clear-cutting and pond digging had already been done at the site. LCG has appealed the ruling. 

Now there’s another court battle brewing. Just weeks after the legal setback in the Lake Farm Road project, LCG moved ahead with a much more ambitious project, using the quick-take maneuver to seize nearly 375 acres of farmland along the Vermilion River just north of Milton to build the $30 million Homewood Regional Detention Pond, part of its Bayou Vermilion Flood Control project. This week, another district court judge, Valerie Garrett, will hear testimony to decide whether LCG was haphazard in taking the unincorporated property and if the project is indeed a public necessity. 

Both councils have been on board with the administration’s plans. In May the councils approved $20 million in emergency spending for stormwater projects and spot dredging of hotspots in the Vermilion River. Viewed as affordable and effective, detention ponds (which continue to be used to great effect in Youngsville) are an essential component of LCG’s overall effort. They are built to hold water for a period of time before diverting it to the public drainage system and eventually the Vermilion River, and both councils have backed the administration’s use of them. LCG presented modeling from its own engineers, as well as that of Youngsville-based McBade Engineers & Consultants and UL Lafayette to convince council members to sign off on the “public necessity” of Lake Farm Road and Homewood Drive detention projects last year. In March of this year, both councils supported the transfer of $3 million from the Stormwater Diversion fund for Homewood, with the parish set to receive almost $30 million in state capital outlay for this project alone. LCG’s website characterizes Homewood as a two-phase project valued at approximately $60 million

A truck pushes wakes of water caused by flash flooding in May 2021.

The owners of the Homewood acreage, the Bendel Partnership, have for months been fighting the expropriation, retaining a consulting engineer, Toby J. Frugé of Owen & White in Baton Rouge, to assess the science and general floodplain management concepts of the pond program and issue his findings. 

A report like Frugé’s, one paid for by either a plaintiff or defendant in litigation, should always be met with a dose of skepticism. A civil engineer and certified floodplain manager with more than a decade of experience in hydrological and hydraulic engineering, Frugé was qualified by a federal court judge as an expert in the field of drainage in a case last year. 

Frugé reviewed the UL and McBade reports, both produced in 2021. His assessment? Don’t do it. 

He questions McBade’s modeling and claims the very reports LCG relied on show the main benefit is to areas immediately along the river but not upstream. Those same reports, he opines, provide alternative recommendations that offer greater benefit, in terms of lowering water levels on the Vermilion, than Homewood. “There are numerous other improvements and combinations of improvements that could have an equal or greater impact than the Homewood pond recommendation,” the civil engineer claims. 

Homewood’s placement and elevation make it ill-suited as a solution, Frugé says, arguing that localized flooding is Lafayette’s primary issue. Billed as a regional project, Homewood’s impact is confined to the immediate areas of the river. Plus, at 22 feet elevation, as Frugé writes, the land sits high above the river’s water surface even during a 100-year storm, yielding “zero benefit” in smaller events. Additionally, Frugé notes that many Lafayette neighborhoods have pipes too narrow to move water in big storms, meaning they’ll flood before any of the water gets to Vermilion River and on to the pond. 

Some experts push back on elements of Frugé’s assessment. Michael Waldon, a hydrologist and retired UL civil engineering professor, says Frugé’s analysis “misinterprets” the Homewood project’s impact on nearby channels, like Coulee Iles Des Cannes, which overtopped and flooded many homes in 2016. 

“He does not consider the effect that lowering the downstream water height will have on allowing the upstream to drain,” Waldon says. 

Data in the duo of reports support Waldon’s observation: Lowering the Vermilion does have some benefit on water levels upstream, but to a lesser extent than on the river itself. 

McBade’s and UL’s reviews produce similar results but reach different conclusions. Both suggest a limited maximum benefit of roughly 6 inches from the Homewood Pond, but in different storm scenarios. Yet, McBade’s concludes LCG ought to move forward with the Homewood project along with several other ponds. UL’s report identifies a pair of much smaller and cheaper ponds along Coulee Iles Des Cannes as having the best outcomes. 

What’s unclear, however, is whether and to what extent these projects would prevent anyone from flooding. Crucially, neither study includes a cost-benefit analysis establishing the number of homes and businesses that could be saved from flooding, given the price tag.  

A FEMA map shows flood zones in Lafayette Parish in green.

“A benefit-cost study and environmental assessment should be required for any large project done by any part of our government including LCG,” Waldon stresses, pointing specifically to one done for the Corps of Engineers’ 1995 Vermilion River study. This type of examination would require more modeling and analysis of different hypothetical floods, an analysis of the properties that are actually impacted by each flood and a ballpark cost estimate for the project, according to the hydrologist. “This analysis is expensive and takes time, but is an important part of assuring taxpayers that what we pay for is a good investment,” he adds, saying the anticipated cost of the Homewood pond “does seem high when compared to its likely benefits.” 

Pam Granger of McBade Engineering, which is also contracted to design the pond, did not respond to a call and email seeking comment on Frugé’s report, and LCG’s legal team also did not return messages. Should the project proceed at the approximately $30 million price tag, McBade’s fee would be close to $1.9 million, according to the fee curve included in her contract. If it reaches the $60 million mark in Phase 2, McBade’s fee rises to $3.6 million.

Weighing cost v. benefits only in terms of damage to structures is too limited a focus, project supporters say, and doesn’t include other disruptions caused by more frequent and more intense storms. Granger has previously argued that cost-benefit analyses like those required for federal funding don’t capture all of a project’s benefits.

“Someone may say, ‘There’s no cost-benefit,’ and some of the federal ways you do cost-benefit are very structurally related,” Granger told The Current in 2021, discussing federal cost-benefit requirements on the proposed Vermilion dredging project. “But us as residents or people who are business owners or people whose lives are turned upside down, that doesn’t fit into a simple mathematical equation with regards to structural damage.”  

Like Waldon, three other engineers who reviewed Frugé’s report for The Current supported some of his findings and took issue with others, but all agreed that a cost-benefit analysis should have been conducted for a project of Homewood’s size and scope. LCG has not responded to questions about why this important step was skipped, especially in light of a 2020 Corps of Engineers-commissioned study showing that a $150 million plan to dredge the Vermilion River would have limited value in that only 175 homes would have been spared from water in the no-name floods of 2016

Parish Councilman Josh Carlson, who has paid close attention to the drainage plan and has met with engineers for a better understanding, does not share those engineers’ concerns. “We’ve had three engineering [groups] verify the data,” he tells The Current. 

Carlson echoed claims by LCG, made in legal filings and in a Tuesday press release defending the spoil banks’ removal, that these projects will have cumulative benefit, potentially reducing Vermilion River water surface levels by as much as 1 foot. Carlson could not point to any documentation supporting that claim. Requests for such documentation from LCG were pending Wednesday afternoon. 

Still, it remains unclear how valuable 1 foot of reduction would be, and LCG itself has sent mixed messages about it, claiming in its spoil banks press release that a 1-foot reduction failed to justify dredging the river while using that same figure to promote aggregate impact of its drainage program. (In 2021, LCG authorized $5 million in emergency spending to dredge the Vermilion River.) 

As courts weigh in on Guillory’s strategy at home (the Homewood hearing is at 9 a.m. Thursday), the St. Martin Parish controversy is heating up in what observers view as a blow to regional flood control efforts. In a phone interview Tuesday, St. Martin Parish President Chester Cedars, who fears removal of the spoil banks could lead to flooding in the low-lying Cypress Island community, called the Guillory administration’s February actions “unprecedented.” 

Indeed, since 2016, efforts have been underway to coordinate stormwater management across parish lines in conjunction with the Louisiana Watershed Initiative. Water knows no political boundaries, the mantra of the initiative goes, and neither should efforts to control it. 

“I proceed very methodically,” Cedars told The Current. “I’m not a ready, shoot, then aim type person. I am a ready, aim, shoot person. I’m trying to get all the facts, all the circumstances crystalized,” he added. “We’re also looking at the negative impact this can have to trust our neighbors to address regional flood issues.”

LCG has defended the spoil banks project, saying it restores the natural contours of the river and will make space for stormwater to flow into the Cypress Island swamp. That view is supported by UL and McBade’s reports. LCG insists the project will benefit both parishes but has not released reports backing that claim. In turn, St. Martin has not been satisfied that the project won’t flood homes in the Cypress Island community. 

Cedars, a former prosecutor, is prepping an aggressive strategy of his own, publicly calling for investigations from regulatory agencies and his congressional delegation and asking his council for authorization to “pursue litigation against every single person, farm and entity that may be complicit in the removal of the banks,” including LCG officials.

“Every single one,” Cedars said at Tuesday’s special council meeting.