Mayor-President Kip Holden’s staff is moving forward with developing a buyout plan for homeowners living adjacent to the North Baton Rouge Waste Water Treatment Plant.
In April, the Metro Council passed a resolution ordering the parish attorney’s office to develop a buyout plan for some residents of University Place subdivision, despite 16 years of litigation that determined the city-parish is not legally culpable.
For years, longtime residents of University Place subdivision have criticized the city-parish for tearing down a park near their homes to build the sewer plant, which they say has plagued their neighborhood with a stench and flies.
Parish Attorney Mary Roper told the Metro Council on Wednesday that she is about 30 days away from finalizing a plan to present to the council.
Greg Mitchell, an advocate for the University Place subdivision, said he was encouraged by the update, but anxiously awaiting results.
“We always hear a lot of talking about how ‘We’re going to do this’ and ‘We’re going to do that,’ ” Mitchell said. “Well now it’s time to get it done.”
Councilman Ulysses “Bones” Addison, who asked for an update on the buyout, expressed disappointment it is taking so long.
Roper responded that she’d had some concerns about the legality of offering the buyout in the absence of a lawsuit settlement.
She said in April she requested an opinion from the state attorney general, who responded Wednesday.
The opinion indicated that the Metro Council can legally purchase the homes adjacent to the plant and create a “buffer zone” if the Metro Council and the administration find that there is a “public purpose associated with such an action.”
Roper said now that she knows she’s on solid legal ground, she can proceed more efficiently in drafting the plan.
The other major hurdle, she said, was how the buyout would be funded.
Roper indicated Wednesday that some funds may be used from the half-cent sales-tax-funded sewer program.
The buyout will ultimately have to be approved by Holden and the Metro Council.
Roper said she’s working in conjunction with Holden and the Department of Public Works to develop the plan.
On Wednesday, Holden wouldn’t directly say whether he supported the buyout.
“Until I see a document, I cannot speculate as to where we are,” he said, adding that there are several unknowns, such as full cost, number of homes to be included and funding sources.
But Holden told the council his office has been cooperating and “trying to come up with and formulate a plan.”
Last year, the city-parish conducted appraisals of 18 homes surrounding the plant valued at $1.2 million total. The homes ranged in value from $55,000 to $78,000, according to a report prepared by Taylor, Porter, Brooks & Phillips.
Roper said it’s unclear if those are the same appraisals that will be considered in the buyout plan at this point, but she told the council the appraisals had been sent to the homeowners’ attorney.
However, the homeowners of University Place also had a separate appraisal done last year. It was conducted by Kermit Williams Realtor and Appraiser — it included 26 homes valued at $2.2 million.
Roper said her office has not received the homeowners’ appraisal report, but is willing to consider them.
Mitchell said the University Place residents are willing to negotiate, but will not be taken advantage of.
“We are willing to sit and talk with them but we’re not going to give up and say we’ll take anything and go,” he said.
The University Place residents, however, may be running out of options.
During the course of the litigation, homeowners were offered buyouts including the appraised value of their homes; moving expenses; utility connection fees; and additional funds if they found a house comparable to their own that was more expensive.
Eight people accepted the buyout, while the remainder held out for additional awards that never came.
In 2008, a state district court awarded more than $1 million to community residents for discomfort, inconvenience, loss of property value and attorneys’ fees.
The 1st Circuit Court of Appeal, however, canceled the award, except for Mitchell, who was awarded $20,000, because she could prove damages related to a recent plant expansion.
Plant operations began in 1960.
In December, the state Supreme Court declined to consider a request by 125 people in the subdivision who wanted their money to be reinstated.