For nearly 18 months now, residents in south Lafayette’s River Woods subdivision have lived next to a colossal, unfinished hole: LCG’s Homewood Detention Pond project.
In that time, they say they have endured uncertainty, broken promises, bright lights and loud equipment once going around the clock, and a dust bowl that gets worse by the day in current drought conditions. They’ve dealt with silting intrusion — Louisiana DEQ issued a notice of deficiency in July 2022 over sediment running offsite — roaches, wasps, clogged drains. And they know the mosquitos are coming once the ponds are holding water.
This is not the vision of the project they were sold, residents say. Science, the Guillory administration insisted, would dictate whether the project along the Vermilion River near Milton moved forward — that the costly investment would have to prove its worth. Residents would soon learn extensive modeling recommended by UL Lafayette was never conducted and later watched in bewilderment as the administration clambered unsuccessfully to defend its decision to seize the land in court proceedings.
All the while, the dust and dirt scattered about.
“We’ve been lied to,” says homeowner Donna Augustine.
A Done Deal
It’s a sweltering Sunday in mid-August. A little more than a dozen residents gather at Augustine’s residence during what is the eighth driest summer recorded in Lafayette Parish. Augustine is passing around a tray of mini cheesecakes and offering lemonade, as construction is underway in full view from her backyard. The trees that once blocked that view are gone, despite assurances, directly from the mayor-president, that they would be untouched.
Homeowners Simon and Katie Hays say they found out the project, Lafayette’s largest ever, was moving forward just as work was starting in early 2022. LCG actually began excavating dirt from the unincorporated property along the Vermilion River before it even signed the contract with Rigid Constructors on Feb. 3, 2022, according to records from the state.
“A totally done deal from the get-go,” says Katie. “We are doing this project, at lightning speed, under the ‘new pace of government.’ … Virtually as soon as we were informed of the project, ground was broken and 24/7 digging started.”
A year earlier, Guillory had in a council meeting promised residents in the Homewood Drive area that he would repeal the public necessity ordinance that allowed for the quick-take expropriation if final engineering plans were not completed within 90 days. The plans were not done in that time frame, and Guillory did not move to repeal the ordinance.
This week, the administration asked the Parish Council to reallocate $1.2 million in federal ARPA funds from planned upgrades to the War Memorial Building on Pinhook Road to be used for park amenities at the troubled project. LCG Chief Administration Officer Cydra Wingerter says the funds, which the council approved at introduction Tuesday, will be used for walking paths, lighting, benches and potentially fishing piers, among other amenities.
It’s the first sign of potential funding for the amenities the Guillory administration floated to residents more than two years ago. “Kayaks. We were going to be kayaking on this little beautiful lake that we have beside us,” Augustine says of the picture the administration tried to paint. “Seriously.”
At a March 16, 2021, public meeting in Milton, LCG officials presented a vision of kayaking, walking trails, picnic areas, pavilions — a public park of sorts — to get neighborhood buy-in on the massive detention pond project residents now believe was built on questionable science.
“We plan to … infuse the funds we need to make it nice,” LCG engineer Fred Trahan told residents in 2021, according to a video posted to social media. “We don’t want just a hole in the ground. It will be a very costly project, a very large project.”
“I want to make sure that you are comfortable with the project,” LCG consulting engineer Pam Granger said. “I will not recommend something that’s that large if it’s not going to work,” added Granger, who would later come under fire for greenlighting a project she stood to make millions on.
What those in attendance that day in 2021 didn’t know is that nine months later LCG would unlawfully seize nearly 400 acres of farmland from the Bendel family to build the series of ponds, lose a lawsuit with those property owners, pay an $11.5 million settlement to continue digging — and keep their quality of life in a state of limbo. And like it did with the spoil banks removal project in St. Martin Parish, LCG would again put itself in the crosshairs of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which earlier this year confirmed to The Current that an investigation into the work at Homewood was underway. In other words, LCG has continued to work on the site at its own risk.
Just as Mayor-President Josh Guillory assured residents back then and has said repeatedly since, nothing would get in his way as he moved swiftly on drainage — the Guillory administration has now spent $160 million on drainage projects completed or under construction, along with associated legal expenses, since he took office in 2020.
River Woods residents say they have suffered the consequences of what they now view as a project that was going forward, with or without them.
In an election year, as Guillory competes for votes on a track record of delivering drainage projects at a “new pace of government,” River Woods residents gathered at the Augustines’ home say they offer a cautionary tale.
For Augustine, a retired school teacher with a degree in biology and environmental science, and her husband, it’s literally hard to breathe the outside air. Augustine, 67, says her husband has asthma and was recently diagnosed with COPD; she too was recently put on an inhaler and is back on allergy shots. “I have been sick all year,” she says. A few months ago her pulmonologist asked her if she’d been around any chemicals when he saw scarring on her lungs.
Residents want the air quality tested, and some wondered aloud whether all of the pesticides used for decades on the farmland have been swirling in the dust that’s constantly stirred up and into their lungs. Lafayette just beat its hot streak for consecutive 100-degree days, and this week Guillory declared a state of emergency related to the heat and drought conditions.
“I have health concerns,” says Jessica Reynolds. “Our lungs, our pets that are outside, the blocked A/C units with all the dust. Even my eyes. We come out and we are eating [dust].”
One resident shows this reporter video images of a brand new exterior deck cleaned the previous day. It’s already got a thick film of dust all over it. Another walks the reporter a few houses over to show her backyard cooking area and swimming pool. She’s given up trying to get the dust off her furniture and from the water in her pool.
“I can’t sit on my patio because there’s dust everywhere,” chimes in Joe Tidwell.
Residents say they, like the district court judge who ruled against LCG last year and halted the project, can’t understand why other sites weren’t considered and why LCG dug on land that was high and dry. A district judge found that LCG failed to analyze other possible locations “to the extent that the Bendel property is considered, which suggests to this Court that LCG decided first that it would expropriate the Bendel property and then conducted studies to support its decision. Unfortunately for LCG, those after-the-fact studies do not sufficiently justify the expropriation either.”
While flooding was much worse in some nearby neighborhoods in 2016, River Woods resident Steve Pekar, a volunteer with the Milton Fire Department, estimates 12-15 homes took on inches of water in their neighborhood; the total number of flooded homes may not be showing up on maps that tracked flooding based on building permits, as some probably did not require them. Those who gathered at the Augustine home say homes that flooded in their neighborhood were along the two coulees that run through it.
“That’s what we were asking them to do [clean out the coulees] prior to the pond projects, as it should be enough to mitigate the flooding that occurs along those coulees,” Simon Hays says. “The only homes that had any water that I’m aware of were along the clogged coulees. They actually just got to our neighborhood this weekend to clean out the coulees.”
Residents maintain they have done their homework. Some say they reviewed a report from UL Lafayette, which did not support the project, and that of LCG consulting engineer Granger, who concluded that Homewood’s main benefit was water surface reductions during a 10-year rain event, a relatively small storm. Others say they have pored over the court transcripts from the expropriation lawsuit with the Bendel heirs. All question whether the ponds will save a single home from flooding, as properties on the river don’t flood in 10-year storms.
“Is it even going to work?” asks Derek Meche, whose home in River Woods subdivision took on about two inches of water in 2016. “It was related to the coulee being clogged,” he says.
What’s the Plan
Residents have complained for more than a year and say they have repeatedly asked questions and received little in the way of answers. They want to see the final, or near final, plans for the detention pond project and want a clearer idea of what other amenities will look like.
“It won’t be policed or maintained,” Augustine says of the planned park. “As soon as construction crews leave, 4-wheelers start up. … I’d much rather have nice fencing.”
“The question is who is going to handle the upkeep and maintenance,” says former Lafayette Parks and Recreation Director Gerald Boudreaux, now a state senator, who Guillory pushed out as parks director. It likely won’t be the parks department, he says.
In 2020, months after Boudreaux’s departure, the Lafayette Parish Council gave $1.3 million to three entities to take over maintenance and operation of parks in Carencro, Duson and Judice, a push toward the goal of eliminating the need to pay for parish parks, leaving mostly parks and recreation facilities in the city of Lafayette, which has its own tax to generate revenue. The parish does not have a dedicated funding source for parks, even though a handful remain in the parish, including the Milton community’s Picard Park, which got $1 million from the state to fund improvements in the most recent legislative session.
Neither Frank Wittenberg, the chair of the City-Parish Recreation Advisory Commission, nor Tidwell, Guillory’s appointee to the commission who represents the Milton area, were aware of Guillory’s proposal this week to move money for the creation of park-like facilities at Homewood until alerted to it by this news organization. “That’s news to us,” Wittenberg tells The Current.
At this writing, it appears maintenance will likely fall to Public Works employees, which is where Guillory is seeking to transfer the ARPA money.
“We would maintain it the same way we would if it was just detention ponds. We would still have to cut the surrounding grass,” says Parish Councilman Josh Carlson, who represents the River Woods area. “LCG doesn’t have any plans to rent out kayaks, though we could allow a company to do that,” notes Carlson, who also attended the March 2021 meeting. “I’ve only heard discussions around fishing piers and walking trails.”
Residents also question whether LCG has enough money to complete the detention pond project. The state has been withholding money, and federal ARPA funds can’t be used because the work was not competitively bid. “We are in the dark about the degree to which the completion of this project is actually funded,” Katie Hays says, “not to mention the costs that will be associated with maintenance, assuming this project is brought to completion.”
It remains unclear just how much LCG has spent on the Homewood ponds. Its budget for the project has grown substantially, now totaling $108 million in local, state and federal funding combined for Homewood and the related Coulee Ile des Cannes ponds. Guillory assured residents at a June meeting in Milton that there is sufficient funding to complete the project, but did not give specifics. There was no mention of what the promised park features would add to the equation.
River Woods residents can’t help but see the contrast in how some neighboring communities, like Youngsville, have approached drainage. “I saw in the local news that Youngsville used FEMA money to put in retention ponds in locations that flooded badly in 2016 — a highly targeted effort in areas identified as the worst hit in 2016,” Katie Hays says. “Seems to me that was a smart, and appropriate, use of funds. In contrast, our neighborhood can’t figure out why detention ponds were warranted for our supposed benefit, while all we ever needed and asked LCG for was to simply maintain our coulee system.”
These neighbors say they have found camaraderie in their misery and know there is very little they can do to ease each other’s angst. One thing is certain: They believe Guillory’s drainage program will be on the ballot this fall, and it’s a record he seems more than willing to run on.
They are all planning to vote.
“We are paying attention to what is happening,” says Simon Hays, “and Guillory seems to think we will be placated by saying trust us while giving an ‘aw-shucks’ smile.”
“Voters really need to understand the scope and implications of what we are seeing first-hand on a daily basis. It is extraordinary, and I mean that in the worst possible way,” says Katie Hays. “I’m still scratching my head about it. How the hell is this much tax money being spent for no discernible public benefit, and to the immediate detriment of residents who happen to be unlucky enough to live nearby?”
Editor’s Note: The last four paragraphs of this story were inadvertently missing from an earlier version. They have been restored.