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Judge halts industrial rezoning for proposed grain elevator site in St. John Parish

Members of the Sunrise Movement protest a proposed grain terminal in St. John the Baptist Parish on May 15, 2021, alongside residents citing environmental justice concerns.
Halle Parker
Members of the Sunrise Movement protest a proposed grain terminal in St. John the Baptist Parish on May 15, 2021, alongside residents citing environmental justice concerns.

This story was originally published by The Lens.

Over the weekend, Joy Banner prepared for the vote on Monday. Taking to social media, she warned that the planning commission for St. John the Baptist Parish might rezone a key piece of residential land in her hometown of Wallace, La., clearing the way for a gigantic grain elevator and export terminal.

Last Thursday, Banner, along with other Wallace residents and witnesses, had driven to the nearby town of Edgard. There, they’d gathered on the long wooden benches of the 40th Judicial District Court. Witnesses took the stand in front of the courtroom’s large pelican emblem, to testify about how rezoning hundreds of acres of farmland in this rural section of the parish would impact their lives.

Landowners adjacent to the property told the court that the official parish notification did not give proper notice to everyone abutting the proposed rezoning.

Any land included in the proposed rezoning that is not owned by Greenfield Louisiana, LLC or the Port of South Louisiana was included in error, said Cal Williams, chief operations officer of Greenfield Holdings. In the official journal of the parish, L’Observateur, the required notice described tracts of land inconsistent with the rezoning application. Because the notice lacked the exact boundaries of the land included in the rezoning application, some immediate neighbors didn’t know whether the proposed zoning changes applied to them, they said.

Leo Dumas and Brenda Jack Cox testified that the parish had not notified them of any possible rezoning, though their families have owned parcels of land within the proposed rezoning application for generations, dating back to the creation of the village of Wallace by groups of returning Black Union soldiers.

Then the hearing concluded and Banner left, to spend the weekend preparing. Two years ago, she and her twin sister Jo Banner had founded a non-profit, The Descendants Project, and sued the parish over a corrupt zoning ordinance dating back to 1990. That was at the root of Thursday’s court hearing.

On Monday morning, Judge Nghana Lewis issued a preliminary injunction, prohibiting the parish from rezoning the land.

Judge began to bar rezoning three months ago, after industrial zoning deemed faulty

The disputed site, where local farmers have grown sugarcane since about 1800, was first rezoned to industrial use in 1990 when Formosa Plastics Corporation hoped to build a plant there. Now, Greenfield Holdings has purchased the land with hopes of building a massive grain terminal there. On August 4, the 33-year-old rezoning ordinance was deemed null and void by Judge Sterling Snowdy, also from the 40th District Court.

The Descendants Project, getting wind of a parish-council vote, filed for their first temporary restraining order (TRO), which Lewis issued on August 21. The next day, the parish council flouted the order and voted to reinstate the industrial zoning, through a resolution passed on August 22.

On August 25, Lewis extended the TRO, again barring the parish from rezoning the land under the old ordinance. A motion of contempt for the parish’s violation of the TRO is still waiting to be heard before the court.

Still, on September 21, Jaclyn Hotard, the parish president, submitted a rezoning application for the Greenfield property on behalf of the parish council, requesting that the planning commission consider industrial zoning designation for the property. One section of the application, signed by Hotard, was notably left blank: a description of the impact that the rezoning would have on the surrounding area.

State ethics complaint: Hotard’s family owns property next to the contested land

One key point of contention during Thursday’s hearing concerned the testimony of Hotard, the parish president. Records show that Hotard’s mother-in-law owns the property immediately adjacent to the land being considered for rezoning, according to correspondence sent on Oct. 18 to St. John Parish counsel Samuel Accardo, from Pam Spees, a lawyer representing The Descendants Project.

The following week, Joy Banner filed an official complaint with the Louisiana Board of Ethics, because the Louisiana Code of Ethics bars public servants from participating in government transactions that benefit an immediate family member.

Before Thursday’s court hearing, William Most, a lawyer representing The Descendants Project, had filed a subpoena demanding that Hotard appear before the court to testify. The parish issued a motion to quash the subpoena, arguing in part that the court was not the proper place to address such a complaint. Lewis denied the larger motion and compelled Hotard to testify, with testimony limited to a discussion of her signature on the rezoning application.

In September and October, the grain elevator opposition also gained steam, as a few influential national and state groups weighed in.

On September 22, the day after Hotard had signed the rezoning application, a review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found that the Greenfield Grain Terminal would harm historic places in St. John Parish. The Corps’ team of historical experts concluded that the construction and operation would adversely impact the Willow Grove Cemetery, Whitney Plantation, Evergreen Plantation and Oak Alley Plantation, as well as the larger, idyllic setting of Great River Road.

The Louisiana and National Trusts for Historic Preservation also wrote letters urging members of the Planning Commission to deny the rezoning request. Earlier this year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included the west bank of St. John Parish on its list of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in the country.

“The National Trust rarely issues comments to local planning commissions, but we are moved to do so in this case because of the tremendous importance of the historic resources that would be harmed by this proposed rezoning and because of the tremendous long-term damage that would be done to St. John the Baptist Parish if Greenfield Terminal were to be constructed,” wrote Chris Cody, the Trust’s associate general counsel, and Elizabeth S. Merritt, the organization’s deputy general counsel.

Keeping watch for rezoning requests

Despite their victories, the Banners have had to remain vigilant. Early last month, the sisters posted on social media about the proposed rezoning, which had been added to St. John Parish Planning Commission’s October agenda. The planning commission’s meeting on October 16 was packed with supporters of The Descendants Project as well as proponents for the grain terminal. Public comment alone lasted about an hour.

Near the end of the meeting, Planning Commission Chair Georgia Keller asked for members of the audience to vote with their legs. First, those in support of the rezoning stood. Then those in opposition rose to their feet. The room was split nearly in half.

Then, in a flurry of confusion, the commissioners began casting their votes. Initially, the audience believed that commissioners were voting to table the rezoning until December. But when the YES votes reached six – a majority – the chair told the audience that commissioners had just voted to table the decision until the November meeting.

Only a month later, the rezoning request reappeared. Once the Banner sisters confirmed that the rezoning request was on the Planning Commission’s November agenda, they sought further legal intervention.

On Thursday, Nov. 9, The Descendants Project again appeared before Judge Lewis.

Her Monday ruling bars the commission from considering the rezoning at the Nov. 13 meeting. At the meeting’s start, Tara Lambeth, the parish’s director of planning and zoning, directed the commission to remove the request from the agenda. To be sure that the court’s point was made, Banner brought copies of the injunction to distribute to the commission members.

Lewis’s ruling prevents the parish from proceeding with the application at any point, until the court orders otherwise.

For Joy Banner, Monday’s court order solidified her determination, and that of The Descendants Project, to continue the fight against Greenfield.

“We’re not going anywhere,” she said. “If it takes 100, 200 more rulings, then that’s what it takes.”

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