Judge forces Parish Council to rezone land for barge operation
However, the Parish Council’s action was due to a federal court mandate that required them to pass the rezoning measure by the night of the council meeting.
Before the Parish Council voted on the issue, Buddy Boe, St. Charles Parish’s chief administrative officer, reminded council members that if they did not vote to pass the rezoning there could be consequences from the court.
“Failure to enact this, the judge could find you in contempt of court,” he said.
Under the ordinance, four tracts of land on the Mississippi River batture in Hahnville owned by Bayou Fleet were rezoned from B-1 to B-2. The barge company was also provided a $275,000 judgment for legal fees.
B-2 zoning allows for sand extraction, ship repair and ship breaking. B-1 zoning only allows for barge mooring.
Robin Durant, owner of Bayou Fleet, first attempted to have his property permanently zoned B-2 industrial back in 2003. After being turned down for rezoning on numerous occasions, Durant filed a lawsuit against the St. Charles Parish Council in 2010. At one point Bayou Fleet was asking for more than $1.3 million in damages in the case.
The lawsuit, which was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, argued that Durant’s civil rights were violated because he received different treatment from other property owners in the area.
Durant said the lawsuit that brought about the change was really based on the unequal treatment he received in contrast to adjacent property owners who received the B-2 rezoning with no opposition.
“If you go back into the 50s there was activities on my property that were B-2 activities and we never stopped doing them. We continued to do them all along and essentially the parish rezoned us in order to shut us down,” Durant said. “If that was the purpose then so be it, but then they should have shut down my next door neighbor and not rezoned him. The other person next to him should have been shut down as well, but they were permitted to change their zoning and reintroduce B-2 activities.”
Before the case went to trial late last year, Bayou Fleet offered to settle the lawsuit for $50,000 in legal fees and assurances that the property would be rezoned, a request that was turned down by the Parish Council.
Subsequently, the court found Durant’s civil rights had in fact been violated and attorneys for Bayou Fleet and the parish were tasked with working out an agreement pursuant to the verdict.
Luling resident Timothy Guidroz said the parish’s Planning and Zoning Department, Planning and Zoning Commission and the Parish Council should serve as a checks and balances system in order protect the interest of residents, but are more often used as political tools.
“The process instead has become a fragmented, divisive and controversial mechanism lending itself to political meddling and cronyism allowing the better interests of St. Charles Parish to be seconded to those who need a political favor for a zoning issue,” he said.
Councilwoman Carolyn Schexnaydre said there was a definite disparity between how Durant and other local property owners were treated in rezoning requests.
“I saw this as nothing but political voting. Evidently the judge saw it because we have the judgment sitting before us and I hope that they learn that is what happens when you do political voting rather than following the rules and regulations that we put forth. Justice and truth was served today,” she said.
Councilwoman Julia Fisher-Perrier said although most of the actions taken against Bayou Fleet were before her time on the council, she was following legal counsel’s advice by opposing the rezoning.
“We were advised we had a case. We did what we thought was right and I guess it is now in front of us, but I don’t think it has hurt the parish as much as some of these residents maybe think it has,” she said.
Fisher-Perrier said the $275,000 judgment would be paid mainly out of an insurance policy held by the parish that covers awards in lawsuits.
“The insurance premium is paid by tax dollars, but (the award amount) isn’t paid directly by tax dollars,” she said. Schexnaydre disagreed with Fisher-Perrier’s stance that the judgment would not be paid by tax dollars.
“Then the insurance premium goes up,” she said. “I look at it as it is tax dollars. Somebody had to pay the insurance.”
For his part, Durant said he was relieved that the zoning change was finally allowed to go through, but disheartened that it took several years and a mandate from a federal court to pass.
“I am disappointed that it had to go this far and I hope that it does have some change or impact on the council and the politics will get out of it. I think some of the comments made about changing the system are pretty valid,” Durant said. “If you can get the politics out of it there should be criteria on whether the zoning change is proper and appropriate and the criteria should be followed.“I just think it should be consistent. Everybody should be treated equally and fairly like the constitution says.”
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