St. Charles Parish could be on the hook for more than $1.3 million in legal fees after losing a lawsuit over a zoning dispute with Hahnville-based barge fleet operator Bayou Fleet.
The lawsuit concerns Robin Durant, owner of Bayou Fleet, attempting to get a permanent industrial zoning variance for his operation located on the Mississippi River side of River Road between Holy Rosary Church and Fashion Plantation in Hahnville.
Durant’s property is subject to grandfathering because it was built before zones were put in place, which allows him to conduct industrial activities that would otherwise be prohibited. Under that grandfathering clause, if his industrial activity should cease, even on a temporary basis, the property would automatically be subject to rezoning.
Durant originally approached the St. Charles Parish Council in 2003 to have the property rezoned and has been turned down numerous times over the years.
Bayou Fleet filed a lawsuit in 2010 saying that surrounding properties were granted similar rezoning requests. In the same year, the St. Charles Parish Council requested a town hall meeting be held by the Army Corps of Engineers to discuss the rezoning. At that meeting, several area residents spoke out against the zoning change citing increased noise concerns.
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 others in the area whose property was allowed to be rezoned, including former Planning and Zoning Commissioner and sandpit owner Neal Clulee. Clulee and Durant have had numerous legal battles in the past.
Since 1999, at least $30,100 has been donated to a variety of politicians from donors using Clulee’s Luling address. His wife, Mary Clulee, narrowly lost an election for the St. Charles Parish Council earlier this year.
Councilwoman Carolyn Schexnaydre said she testified at the trial about the treatment Durant received in contrast to others, such as Clulee, who were granted similar zoning variances. She said the first time Durant asked the Parish Council to rezone the property she voted against it, but in subsequent appearances she voted for the rezoning.
“I apologized to Mr. Durant the second time he came before us because I did not go and check all of this stuff out and see what the situation was and what was going on,” she said. “Every time after that it came up I voted for it because the property owners on either side of him got it and there were no questions asked and nobody complained. This man should have been given it too.”
During her testimony, Schexnaydre said she relayed to the court how others seeking the same variance were often given it without being asked any questions at all.
“All you have do is watch the meetings. If you watch the meetings and you see all of their votes, they give it to some and they don’t give it to others. There are rules and regulations that apply to everybody,” she said. “If it is given to one, it has to be given to the other unless there are other circumstances involved.”
Schexnaydre said the judgment should serve as a warning to the Parish Council.
“Instead of following the rules and regulations of the parish, you are playing political games and it all comes back. I knew they were going to win this case and it is hurting St. Charles Parish,” she said.
According to Schexnaydre, the council had a chance to settle the case before it went to trial, but declined to do so. “We could have settled this for $50,000 and given him his zoning and they were against that too and declined it,” she said.
Schexnaydre said the money the parish will have to give Durant could have been better allocated toward other expenditures, such as flood protection in the parish.
“That is what happens when you don’t follow rules and regulations that your parish has. It hurts the taxpayers and I hope this opens the taxpayers’ eyes,” she said.
Although Julia Fisher-Perrier was only elected earlier this year and long before the conflict with Bayou Fleet began, she voted against Durant’s most recent rezoning request due to opposition expressed at town hall meetings held by Councilman Terrell Wilson for those living in nearby residential zones.
“I think I made that quite clear that I couldn’t just risk opening up the residents to something that could possibly change their way of life,” she said. “It was too risky.”Fisher-Perrier said voting in favor of the rezoning was not worth risking the quality of life of area residents. “If we couldn’t guarantee that the people would be protected then we couldn’t be in favor of that,” she said.
St. Charles Parish and Bayou Fleet have until Dec. 8 to reach an agreement on the total amount of damages. If an agreement cannot be made at that time, there will be another hearing and the court will decide damages.
The St. Charles Parish government and Bayou Fleet declined to comment.