Letter to the editor
Willowridge homeowner responds to Rathborne letter -- says residents deserve to know the truth about levee
I read with great interest J. Cornelius Rathborne's letter in the Oct. 11 edition of The Herald-Guide. He states that St. Charles residents deserve honest discussions about levee placement. On this point I agree completely and thus wish to address a few items he mentioned in his letter.
Rathborne's letter states that development of Willowridge Phase VI is a completely separate matter from the levee alignment and that I consistently link the two together.
Actually, Rathborne's company and its agents have linked the two together and have done so long before I began speaking out on the issue earlier this year.
As I stated in my previous letter to The Herald-Guide in March, as an adjacent land owner (by the way, I never hid this fact -- it was disclosed to the world in the third paragraph of my letter) I received a copy of the joint public notice about Willowridge VI.*
The maps describing the project prepared by Rathborne's agent Hebert Engineering, which were created in late 2006, illustrated the hurricane protection levee as going south of Rathborne's development.
When I spoke with Hebert's Project Manager about it at the time, she said they had been meeting with the Corps on both projects -- Willowridge VI and the levee - and the two would be "seamless".
In addition, Rathborne linked the two together in a letter* from their lawyer David Loeb to Parish President Albert Laque dated April 2006 which says, "Please be advised that Rathborne will not agree to a modification of the Conservation Servitude (for a northern alignment levee) that precludes development of Phase VI or reduces the current level of flood protection."
Rathborne's letter to the Guide stated that they "have been actively involved in the effort to bring levee protection to the west bank of St. Charles Parish for many years." As a self-admitted long-time player in the west bank levee protection effort, Rathborne surely must know that the Corps of Engineers has been saying for 17 years that it could not approve a southern alignment due to federal law.
In an August 1999 letter* to the parish, then Regulatory Branch Chief Ronald Ventola wrote, "Corps involvement with the proposal dates back to November 1993. At that time the Parish presented a levee alignment which enclosed a considerable amount of wetland. The Corps told the parish that based on national policy, laws, and guidance, it would be very difficult and may not be possible to grant a permit along the tentative alignment presented. We strongly suggested that they look closely at an alignment that would follow the wetland/non-wetland interface."
Ventola continued, "We are aware that the St. Charles Parish Council has voted 6 to 2 to support an alignment that basically follows the wetland/non-wetland alignment. We believe that this is the best route to take at this time to get a needed levee built to protect the area development in the shortest amount of time. … We anticipate a permit could probably be granted in 2 to 3 months." (Then Parish President Chris Tregre vetoed this alignment, which is basically today's northern alignment.)
Why then would Rathborne, and others, continue to support an alignment that Corps officials, and other state and federal agencies, have said for 17 years federal law prohibits them from permitting?
(And how much would a pump have cost if it were built 17 years ago or even 8 years ago? Surely not as much as today. And why doesn't our parish require developers to pay for all proper drainage facilities associated with residential development similar to what is done in Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes? If that were the case, Rathborne would have had to pay for a drainage pump years ago; a pump station was called for in the 1995 West Bank Master Drainage plan*. Local candidates: are you taking notes?)
Rathborne also states that his company cares about the flood protection of St. Charles residents.
If that is truly the case, I would challenge him to host a townhall meeting for all west bank residents with representatives of Rathborne, Hebert Engineering, the parish (including the Departments of Public Works and the EOC), the state Department of Natural Resources, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Corps of Engineers and others so that citizens can hear and understand the issues from all parties involved in the levee, drainage, and hurricane protection.
A townhall meeting would offer an opportunity for interactive dialogue between all parties and citizens to ensure full understanding on the issues that are just not easily understood in a letter from just one entity.
For instance, Rathborne's letter states that his company "has set aside nearly 300 acres south of Willowridge as an area to 'detain' flooding rains until the Parish drainage system can handle the water." In a townhall meeting, the EPA could clarify whether the 370 acres it ordered Rathborne to set aside as a perpetually protected conservation servitude in 1999 (along with a $600,000 fine as punishment for developing Willowridge Phases IV and V without permits) could really be used as a retention area or whether that would be considered a violation of a federal Department of Justice consent decree*.
Other issues to be clarified in a townhall or other such meeting:
· the true costs of the northern and southern alignments. While Rathborne has stated it will donate land for the southern alignment, saving the parish money, there will still be wetlands mitigation costs for the total acres of wetlands impacted. The northern alignment of the levee is shorter, meaning fewer linear feet of construction costs and fewer wetlands impacted. What are the real differences in the costs of the levees?
· Why the difference in levee and pump protection. A levee and pump provide flood protection for portions of the Davis/Willowdale/Willowridge areas including Cottage Blvd and north. Why then isn't a similar protection plan feasible for the most southern portions of Willowridge? This is particularly difficult to understand when in 1995 the West Bank Master Drainage Plan* developed under then Public Works Director Danny Hebert (of Hebert Engineering) and then Parish President Chris Tregre stated that "a pump station will be needed when the subdivision (Willowridge)is developed."
· The drainage capacity of the Cousins Canal pump station. Maps for Willowridge VI* indicate it will be drained to the Cousins Canal. How much more can that pump station handle and will the parish need to build a pump station anyway if the southern alignment and Willowridge VI are built? How much would a pump station cost in another 8 years?
· Differences in projected storm flooding by different groups. The EOC has figures on storm surge and it appears a new drainage study by other parish engineers have different figures. Why the discrepancy?
· The state's efforts to preserve privately-owned coastal forests. State officials have prepared reports on the importance of coastal forests. State senator Joel Chiasson even co-authored a resolution in 2004* requesting Congress to fund a Coastal Forest Reserve program. Why shouldn't we preserve Rathborne's acres of coastal forests, as well?
Rathborne states that I have "viciously attacked" him and his company. I believe he is confusing vicious attacks with my efforts to make local residents aware of his own previously published comments and actions on levee issues in other parts of the metro area. It is a published fact that he was named to head Jefferson Parish's Category 5 Levee committee by Aaron Broussard*. It is a published fact that he signed a petition sent to Gov. Blanco stating that levee protection should be our state's top priority*. Is it an attack if he is asked if his top priority for Willowridge is really levee protection or the ability to make $20 million if Phase VI is developed? To quote Shakespeare, " Methinks, he doth protest too much!"
Rathborne also said that I have "a conflict of interest" in the levee issue. It's not a conflict of interest; it's a vested interest! It's the right to protect the value of my property and my community. And he is absolutely wrong when he says I never admitted publicly that I live next to his land. I have said that I am an adjacent land owner on numerous occasions.
I speak out because I firmly believe that every St. Charles Parish west banker deserves hurricane protection just like the west bank of Jefferson and the east bank of St. Charles. And I believe private residential development in wetlands is wrong and goes against everything the state is trying to do in this post-Katrina environment.
And I am amused that Rathborne states my kids' broken basketball goal on the side yard of my home and my infrequent parking on the side street are somehow proof that I am misleading people on why I am vocal about his company's efforts.
What is not amusing is that for 17 years, the Corps has said a northern alignment will provide hurricane protection in accordance with federal law to developed areas in the shortest amount of time.
Practically all state and federal agencies, as well as environmental organizations, are in agreement with this northern alignment. In fact, current Corps Regulatory Chief Pete Serio told the parish council in June of this year that if the New Orleans office of the Corps approves anything but the northern alignment, the decision would then go to a higher level within the corps and delay a decision, and thus delay a levee.
And even several parish elected officials, including Laque and Councilman Brian Fabre, have stated on several occasions that they were ready to put a levee wherever the corps permitted one, including along the northern alignment.*
But still, Rathborne advocates a southern route.
The best case St. Charles west bankers have for a hurricane protection levee in the near term is the northern alignment. Period.
This is not just about Willowridge or Willowdale or Davis. No one on the west bank is currently protected from storm surge -- despite the fact that other phases of the levee are already underway -- until the entire west bank levee system is complete. That goes for homes, schools, and businesses from Des Allemands to Luling, all along Highway 90, as well as all of the major industries along River Road. And if local residents and businesses turn up the heat on our congressional delegation just like big companies do, more than likely the federal government will end up paying for our levee.
Parish EOC Director Tab Troxler said at last year's parish hurricane summit* that if Katrina had moved 40 miles west, there would have been 15 feet of water at the river levee and 20 feet of water in the back of Willowridge. Troxler also said that even a slow-moving Category 2 hurricane could swamp 85 percent of the structures in the parish if it comes in from the southeast.
In the end, it won't matter if the flooding is caused by another Katrina or another Juan; $20 million for a pump will seem like a bargain compared to the costs of damage to thousands of homes, infrastructure, major industry, etc. Not to mention the loss of tax revenue to our parish in such an event.
Just ask the people of St. Bernard.
Allison J. Prendergast
*Asterisked items can be verified at members.cox.net/scpwbleveenow.
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