Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Coastal Desk

Amid push to block grain elevator, suit over zoning change moves forward in St. John Parish

wallace grain elevator
Halle Parker
/
WWNO
A sign opposing a proposed grain elevator in Wallace sits in front of Fee-Fo-Lay Cafe, a coffee shop owned by the founders of the Descendants Project, on Thursday, April 21, 2022.

A lawsuit looking to overturn a decades-old zoning change in St. John the Baptist Parish and block the construction of a $400 million grain terminal will move forward after a hearing in the 19th Judicial District Court on Thursday morning.

Louisiana District Court Judge J. Sterling Snowdy said he planned to deny all exceptions posed by the parish and Greenfield Louisiana, LLC — the company looking to build the grain elevator — and decided the case had a legitimate legal claim.

At question is the validity of a zoning change made by the Parish Council in 1990 at the request of then-Parish President Lester Millet. A large tract of farmland next to a predominantly Black neighborhood in Wallace was converted from residential to industrial zoning to make way for a rayon plant planned by the Taiwan-based company, Formosa Plastics Group.

DSC_9851.jpg
Halle Parker
/
WWNO
A trailer sits in the road off West 7th Street in Wallace, Louisiana on Thursday, April 21, 2022. To the left, steel pilings stand where a proposed grain terminal would be constructed. To the right, houses of a predominantly Black neighborhood stand. Some residents oppose the grain terminal, wary of the industrial facility's impacts to health and the land.

Formosa later abandoned its plans, and Millet was indicted in 1995 on money laundering, extortion and racketeering in connection with his plot to lure the company in and profit off the deal. He was convicted and served prison time, but the rezoning remains in place, enabling the grain elevator’s construction.

The Descendants Project, a Wallace-based nonprofit dedicated to promoting the area’s descendants of slaves, sued the parish, arguing the rezoning should be rendered null and void because of the corruption surrounding it.

Outside the courthouse, the twin sisters leading the nonprofit and their supporters celebrated, joining in a prayer circle. Jo and Joy Banner, who are Wallace natives and residents, said they considered the day a victory for their community, though it has yet to be decided whether the zoning will change.

“I know we have more, but it's such a huge win to have the judge say that y'all can continue,” Joy Banner said.
The outcome, Jo Banner said, justifies all the actions the pair, along with other Wallace residents, have taken to oppose the industrial use of the land.

“This is a positive note for us to present to the community and know that we're not just bringing this up, we're not just being dramatic — that this is really something that is concerning,” she said.

Descendants Project Pam Spees greenfield St. John lawsuit
Halle Parker
/
WWNO
The Descendants Project's Jo and Joy Banner (left and middle) pose with Center for Constitiutional Rights attorney Pam Spees outside the 19th Judicial District Court in Edgard after a judge ruled their case could move forward on Thursday, April 28, 2022.

During the hearing, Greenfield attorney Louis Buatt argued the issue was outside the court’s purview, and the case would “inappropriately insert the court into the political process.” He said crafting zoning ordinances is clearly within the parish council’s authority and not subject to absolute nullity — which states contracts where the object is illicit or immoral can’t be confirmed.

Buatt also noted the parish president’s limited role in their passage and pointed to the lack of precedence. There are no other similar cases where the court has ruled in Louisiana.

Center for Constitutional Rights attorney Pam Spees, who is representing The Descendants Project, agreed that the case is unique, adding that it isn't often that a parish president is “caught red-handed” in corruption. The rezoning was critical to Millet’s plans, she stressed.

“The parish president’s actions cannot be divorced from the legislative process in this country, in this state and in this parish,” she told the judge. “But for Lester Millett, that zoning change wouldn’t have come before the parish.”

She also argued that in cases where fraud and abuse of power are involved — like Millet’s actions — the court has made exceptions in determining whether a law is subject to absolute nullity.

“It’s the process that led to the ordinance that renders it in absolute nullity,” she said.

In court, Buatt said the ordinance could be subject to relative nullity, not absolute. But under relative nullity, action needed to be taken within five years of the rezoning, and it’s been more than three decades. In his conclusion, Snowdy also said he wasn’t convinced that the case fell within the prescription but still denied it.

A St. John Parish spokeswoman said the parish doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

Snowdy said his official ruling and reasoning would be available within the next 10 days. Once released, Greenfield officials plan to review the ruling and will likely ask the Circuit Court to review. The parish and company will also look to have the lawsuit dismissed before a trial with a summary judgment.

"We believe that our legal position on support of the parish is very sound, and we are moving forward,” said Buatt. “While we respect the court’s ruling, we will file with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.” 

If that fails, a lengthier discovery period would proceed, followed by a trial where the judge would decide whether the zoning stands.

In the meantime, the company is proceeding with its plans and has applied for permits with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct its export terminal along the Mississippi River.

"Greenfield is moving forward with our project after earning overwhelming support from the community, the port and public officials on our effort to bring clean jobs and tax support for the residents," Buatt said. "These procedural attempts to hold up immense benefits to the community will not have a central impact in our opinion.”

👋 Looks like you could use more news. Sign up for our newsletters.

* indicates required
New Orleans Public Radio News
New Orleans Public Radio Info