In attacking drainage, Mayor-President Josh Guillory has proudly touted a “new pace of government.” It’s a call to action he says the public demands after years of slow progress in addressing worsening floods. But this new pace has now put three of his signature drainage projects either in court or headed that way.
While he has tried to dismiss the severity of these threats — claiming the expropriation lawsuits are just the negotiating tactics of property owners trying to get higher prices for their land — each of these cases could result in LCG being forced to spend millions to put dirt back into holes we just spent millions digging out. To boot, these threats were all avoidable if the administration had a little more respect for red tape.
Red tape isn’t just bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake. It’s what protects property rights from government overreach. With the expropriation process, for example, governments need to prove why a project has to be located on a particular piece of property to justify taking people’s land — clearly establishing a “public necessity.” So far, LCG has failed to make that case. And now taxpayers could be left holding the bag.
The poster child of this predicament is the Lake Farm Road detention ponds project. The $3.5 million project funded with city money is in jeopardy because LCG didn’t have a comprehensive drainage plan, didn’t adequately consider other locations for these ponds, and wasn’t able to prove that its plans adhered to modern engineering best practices. A judge ruled last year that LCG’s “quick take” expropriation of 16 acres of land behind Costco was unlawful.
Should LCG’s appeal of the ruling fail, it will have to return the land back to the Randol family heirs, along with a six-figure check to cover their legal costs and a seven-figure check to restore the land to its original state. LCG has already cut down trees and completed initial excavation of the ponds. In this scenario, Guillory’s new pace of government will have lit millions of dollars on fire with nothing to show for it.
There was another path. Guillory could have entered into good faith negotiations with the Randols to try and avoid having to expropriate the land. Or he could have followed the lead of Youngsville’s Mayor Ken Ritter and brokered a partnership deal. Instead, according to the lawsuit against LCG, Guillory sent the owners a lowball offer and then broke off communications after they sent a counter.
Even if there was no choice but to expropriate this land, Guillory could have made sure LCG followed the rules the first time it used LCG’s quick-take expropriation authority. By state law, LCG has to prove that it had no choice but to expropriate a particular piece of land. But the judge in that case found that LCG didn’t even take the time to look into other nearby options, including city-owned land at Beaullieu Park. Instead, LCG’s engineer admitted in court that he just eyeballed an estimate of the potential cost to use land already owned by the city. So, according to the first judge, LCG did less than the minimum work required to legally expropriate private land.
There’s a pattern here. The same thing happened when LCG removed spoil banks on land it purchased in St. Martin Parish without a parish permit from St. Martin, a federal permit, or the support or knowledge of the St. Martin Parish government. Council members there have since unanimously authorized Parish President Chester Cedars to pursue legal action against LCG and all parties involved for violating parish law. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is reviewing whether LCG needed a permit to remove the dirt that separates the Vermilion River and the Cypress Island wetlands, both of which fall under the Corps’ jurisdiction.
Guillory has characterized this as much-needed action, saying he’s cutting through the bureaucracy for a project he claims won’t just benefit Lafayette but also St. Martin Parish. But he’s glossing over the very real liabilities that his actions are saddling Lafayette with.
At a minimum, there will be more money going to lawyers and court costs and what will likely be fines for violating the St. Martin Parish law that requires permits when altering levees. There’s also the likelihood that the next time Cypress Island homes flood, those homeowners are going to come knocking on LCG’s door with repair bills in one hand and lawsuits in the other. And then there’s the possibility that the Corps determines a federal permit was required and forces LCG to rebuild those levees. Yet again, taxpayers could lose millions with nothing to show for it.
Even if Guillory prevails in court and the cost of fines and legal fees aren’t high, Lafayette’s still going to be paying dearly in terms of the loss of our credibility. Why should any other parish believe that Lafayette can be a fair, honest partner when it comes to regional drainage efforts? Guillory admitted to keeping Cedars in the dark about his plans, failed to produce the additional models he claims prove the project won’t increase flooding in St. Martin Parish, allegedly trucked equipment in in the dark of night, and didn’t even give Cedars a courtesy call after the work was done.
Why should Cedars or any other parish president ever trust the mayor-president again? And for that matter, why should any other government trust LCG? Lafayette’s City and Parish councils have been totally complicit in all this. What happens the next time a neighboring parish has a drainage project that may increase flooding in Lafayette Parish that Lafayette’s leaders express concern about? Should that neighboring parish just ignore the need for permits and do the work in secret anyway?
But as big a deal as these first two projects are, they’re nothing compared to the scale of potential liabilities created by the largest piece of the Bayou Vermilion Flood Control project: the $30 million detention pond project on Homewood Drive.
Homewood followed the same “quick take” game plan as Lake Farm. Only this project is roughly 10 times larger, taking unincorporated land just north of Milton from the Bendel Partnership, whose 30 or so family members are challenging the expropriation in court. The project is currently on pause in the middle of litigation, as a potential professional ethics violation plays out, but only after LCG dug two of four planned ponds.
This project is paid for with $26 million of state capital outlay money and an $8.8 million match from a mix of city and parish funds. The funding agreement for that state capital outlay money requires the applicant to have title to the land where work is being done. So what happens if LCG digs these ponds and loses another expropriation case — like has already happened at Lake Farm Road — and then has to pay back the state on top of paying the owners to restore their land? That’s tens of millions of city and parish tax dollars hanging in the balance.
Even if LCG isn’t forced to restore the Bendel property, this project highlights another deficiency of Guillory’s new pace of government: the lack of proper planning.
For any large-scale drainage project, standard practice would include a benefit-cost analysis assessing its relative impact in real-world terms, like the number of structures that would be saved from flooding. For some inexplicable reason, Guillory’s administration chose not to do this for these massive ponds on Homewood Drive. So we have no concrete idea how much of an impact this project will have on preventing flooding.
At best, LCG says this project would lower the river’s water surface level by 6 inches during a 10-year storm. But according to an analysis of the flood maps on FloodFactor.com and conversations with homeowners, homes on the river don’t generally flood during 10-year storms. And these ponds are projected to lower the river by less than an inch during a 100-year storm. So this $30 million project won’t stop anyone from flooding during a 2016-scale flood, and may not stop anyone from flooding during a storm of any magnitude.
In other words, the Homewood project may be a loss before we calculate potential liabilities. Liabilities that were completely avoidable.
Once LCG lost its first expropriation case, it could have regrouped and created a new playbook to follow, but it didn’t. Before pursuing funding and expropriating more land for Homewood, LCG could have performed a benefit-cost analysis to make sure the project was worth doing, but it didn’t. Pausing to do that would not have set the project back by years. And we still have time to do it for Homewood now — and for the other drainage projects on the books — before any more money is lost. (Council members are you listening?)
All together, this “new pace of government” has needlessly put tens of millions of taxpayer dollars at risk. It’s infuriating that it’s been almost six years since the 2016 floods and Lafayette has made little meaningful progress in improving drainage. Action and urgency are understandable. But Guillory’s bureaucracy-busting approach is proving reckless and could become catastrophically costly.