The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council voted Wednesday to relocate 44 Scotlandville homeowners away from the foul-smelling North Baton Rouge Waste Water Treatment Plant, putting an end to a 17-year battle with residents waged in the courts and at City Hall.
The Metro Council voted 8-4 to approve an estimated $6 million project to relocate the residents and build a natural buffer zone around the sewer plant.
The council also voted to eliminate its committee meetings on the first and third Wednesdays of the month. Action to eliminate council committees was not listed on the agenda for the council meeting, although the agenda included an item to consider changing meeting times.
A small group of Scotlandville residents who attended the meeting said they were cautiously optimistic about moving forward with the city-parish on the relocation plan after the Metro Council’s vote to approve creation of a buffer zone around the sewer plant.
Homes within the buffer zone will be demolished under the plan, which means residents will have no choice other than to relocate. However, they won’t know how much they’ll be offered for their homes until after the city-parish pays for appraisals.
Residents have in recent months expressed trepidation about plans for the buyout, asking for estimates from the city-parish, on what they are likely to get for their homes, but officials said money could not legally be expended for the appraisals until the Metro Council designated the project.
“I feel like it’s an unfair deal, but right now this is all we have,” said Shontelle Mitchell, who lives in the neighborhood. Mitchell, her husband and her mother-in-law have been the leaders of the fight against the city-parish, acting as spokespeople for the community.
“If someone is not satisfied and they’re out of their home, we will not be able to sleep since we were the heads of this thing,” she said. “Hopefully the city will do the right thing.”
The relocation also serves as a settlement in a lawsuit the Louisiana Environmental Action Network filed against the city-parish over allegations of problems with the treatment plant.
The project ultimately will be paid for through the city-parish’s federally mandated Sanitary Sewer Overflow plan, which is funded with user fees and a half-cent sales tax.
The funding hinges on a request for a four-year extension — from December 2014 until December 2018 — from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s requirement for sewer improvements.
The time extension, city-parish officials have said, will spread out the cost of capital projects and allow for funding to be directed to the relocation and buffer project.
The extension must be approved by the EPA, the Department of Justice and signed by a federal judge.
“We feel pretty confident that everything is going to move forward smoothly,” said William Daniel, chief administrative officer to Mayor-President Kip Holden.
The residents have fought for years in the legal system and directly with the city-parish to be moved away from the plant, which was expanded to abut their properties in the 1990s.
The courts ultimately ruled against the neighborhood, saying the city-parish has no legal obligation to compensate them for expanding the plant, except for one resident whose claims the court accepted.
But the Metro Council two years ago asked officials to craft a plan to accommodate the residents.
Voting in favor of the relocation and buffer were Trae Welch, Chauna Banks-Daniel, Ronnie Edwards, Donna Collins-Lewis, C. Denise Marcelle, Chandler Loupe, Buddy Amoroso and Tara Wicker. Voting against the proposal were Scott Wilson, Joel Boé, Ryan Heck and John Delgado.
In other business, during a discussion to change the time of the Metro Council’s committee meetings, the council decided to do away with them entirely.
The Metro Council was alternating meetings every Wednesday, with the first and third weeks for committee meetings and the second and fourth for full council meetings where binding votes are taken.
The Metro Council has a Finance and Executive committee and a Capital Improvements committee, where items that are going to the full council are vetted, but no binding votes are made.
Both the committees and the full council meetings offer forums for the public to address the council.
Councilman Ryan Heck made the motion to dissolve the committees, which won with eight votes.
Boé, Wicker, Wilson and Welch voted against removing the meetings.
Boé said in an interview after the meeting that committees serve an important purpose, allowing members more time to collect information ahead of complicated votes and giving the public another opportunity to speak.
“What the council did tonight in some ways is they’ve pulled the shades down over the public’s eyes,” he said. “Committees work on every legislative level, from state level to national level.”
Parish Attorney Mary Roper had advised council members at Wednesday’s meeting that they could vote to remove committees, because it was germane to the advertised item on the council’s agenda, which would have changed the times.
Heck — who took office Jan. 2 — said after the meeting that he was attempting to “streamline government” by eliminating the committee meetings.
“Essentially they are moot,” he said of the committees. “They’re nonbinding informative sessions.”
If it turns out the committees are necessary, he said, the council can vote later to reinstate them.
The committee meetings were eliminated by the previous Metro Council in 2009, but were reinstated in January 2010. The council considered removing the committees again in 2011, but ultimately voted to keep them in place.