St. Charles Parish officials are confident that construction on the Willowridge portion of the West Bank Hurricane Protection Levee will begin next year despite a lingering lawsuit that keeps them from accessing part of the land where the levee will be built.
The lawsuit in question seeks to overturn a conservation easement put in place by a federal judge in response to Clean Water Act violations by Rathborne Land Co., the company responsible for the development of the Willowridge and Willowdale subdivisions in Luling.
The 375-acre conservation easement was put in place in 2000 in order to preserve area wetlands from future destruction.
The parish has gone ahead with soil boring and testing at the Willowridge site of the proposed levee outside of the conservation area and plans to take the initial phase of levee construction to bid in early 2013. Parish officials have said they have all the necessary funds to complete the Willowridge phase of the levee.
Renee Simpson, public information officer with the parish, said in a statement that the parish is hopeful the ruling ordering the easement will be overturned soon.
"Current litigation between the United States of America and Willowridge Estates LLC and Rathborne Land Company Inc. has impacted the parish’s ability to construct the Willowridge Phase II project," Simpson wrote. "However, the parish is optimistic that a Consent Decree between the parties issued in 2000 will be modified by the federal court prior to the end of the year."
To facilitate construction, Simpson says St. Charles Parish has joined with the Lafourche Basin Levee District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Justice to request that the federal court remove a nine-acre strip of land from the conservation easement behind homes on Cypress Drive to enable levee construction. In anticipation of this request, the parish has purchased wetland mitigation to offset the removal of those acres.
Simpson said costly changes will have to be made to current plans if the litigation cannot be resolved before the levee bidding process begins.
"If the Consent Decree modification cannot be completed prior to advertising for construction in the beginning of 2013, this section of levee will be excluded from the contract increasing the costs of the project and continuing to leave the area vulnerable to storm events like Hurricane Isaac," Simpson said.
Despite the easement being enacted as a punishment against Rathborne for violating federal law, the development company has been fighting the parish on proposed construction in the easement area.
According to court documents, Willowridge and Rathborne say they strongly oppose the current alignment permitted by federal agencies because it violates the consent decree due to the fact that the conservation area will be disturbed by a Luling levee. Willowridge/Rathborne also say that the permitted levee alignment reduces the level of protection from significant rainfall events for the residents of Willowridge Subdivision.
Instead, they believe that a permit should be issued for an alignment further to the south, which they say will cause less damage to wetlands protected by the consent decree.