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A Louisiana judge ended a decades-old zoning ordinance in St. John. The parish wants it back.

A drone captures an aerial view of a predominantly Black neighborhood in Wallace, Louisiana and the neighboring farmland slated for industrial development by an agricultural company.
Brian Davis
/
Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation
A drone captures an aerial view of a predominantly Black neighborhood in Wallace, Louisiana and the neighboring farmland slated for industrial development by an agricultural company.

Three weeks after a state judge struck down a controversial zoning law, St. John the Baptist Parish Council is considering reinstating the same law to allow the construction of a $479 million grain elevator.

For two years, the St. John-based nonprofit Descendants Project fought for the 19th Judicial District Court to overturn a 1990 zoning ordinance as part of its ongoing opposition to the grain elevator proposed near the small, mostly Black community of Wallace.

The 30-year-old zoning law changed hundreds of acres of land on the parish’s rural west bank from residential use to industrial to make way for a different development planned at the time — a giant rayon plant planned on the same site that is now being eyed for the grain elevator. The ordinance passed as part of a former parish president’s corrupt scheme to profit off the deal.

A procedural oversight toppled the old zoning law in a judgment by Louisiana District Court Judge John Snowdy on Aug. 4. In his ruling, Snowdy said an amendment to the ordinance wasn't approved by the parish planning commission at the time — a crucial step before passage. As a result, Snowdy declared the law null and void, revoking the industrial zoning.

Last week, the agendafor Tuesday’s parish council meeting showed that Parish Councilman Kurt Becnel, who represents Wallace, planned to introduce a resolution that would “affirm,” or restore, the now-defunct zoning law. In the resolution, Becnel asserted that doing so would immediately reinstate the changes to the zoning map and allow industrial development on the land without going through the traditional steps for new zoning ordinances.

But some residents, including the Descendants Project, have voiced concerns over the legality of such a move.

“This is their last ditch effort. Changes to the official zoning map would have to be done by an ordinance anyway,” said Descendants Project co-founder Joy Banner.

Under parish law, amendments to the zoning map start with applications to a zoning regulatory administrator for review. From there, the application goes before the planning commission, which holds a public hearing. If the planning commission approves the zoning change, the proposal then goes before the parish council for a final vote.

“What they’re saying is we don’t care about the process,” Banner added.

On Monday, Louisiana District Court Judge Nghana Lewis granted a temporary restraining order filed by the Descendants Project against the Parish Council and St. John the Baptist Parish President Jaclyn Hotard. Any action on the resolution or other attempts to change the zoning of the property will be blocked until at least Friday, when the court expects to hold a hearing.

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.
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.

At the hearing, the parish will have the chance to argue against a preliminary injunction.

Neither Parish Council President Michael Wright nor Becnel responded to requests for comment.

The hearing marks the latest court battle over the grain elevator, proposed by Greenfield Louisiana LLC.

The company is also in the middle of a separate lawsuit filed by the Descendants Project over alleged violations of the open meetings law and a tax break agreement with the Port of South Louisiana. A permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has also been delayed as the federal regulator evaluates the project’s potential impact on historic and cultural sites nearby.

The project is backed by the parish council members and administration andhas divided residentson St. John’s west bank over whether this largely rural stretch of Louisiana’s chemical corridor should allow industry into the community.

Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk. You can reach her at hparker@wwno.org.

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