When Mamie Mitchell bought her house on Avenue M in north Baton Rouge in 1972, her house faced a city park. Mitchell would sit in her front yard keeping an eye on her young boys as they played with the neighborhood kids in the park across the street. The park was so close, she recalls, a ball kicked from the park broke her bedroom window.
It was exactly where and how Mitchell wanted to live.
But in the 1990s, the city-parish paved over the park greenery and expanded the North Baton Rouge Waste Water Treatment Plant to the edge of the community, just a few dozen feet from rows of homes. Plagued by sewage odors and flies — and the unsightly view of a giant sewer plant — the residents were driven indoors.
For the last 20 years, Mitchell, her son and group of neighbors have fought the city-parish, demanding that officials relocate them away from the sewer plant that has devalued their homes and spoiled their quality of life.
Decades passed and the fight has finally come to an end. Mitchell is packing up her things and moving to her new home on Big Bend Drive. Hers is the last of 41 residential properties bought out by the city-parish this past year in the relocation effort.
“I look forward to spending time in my backyard again,” Mitchell said Friday as she packed up her home. “My grandchildren will be able to hang out outside. Even though they’re mostly teenagers now, they can be in the yard and set up a basketball goal without the flies and the odors and the snakes. They couldn’t do that over here.”
The city-parish government has so far spent $5.5 million to relocate 41 families. In the process, the city-parish also acquired 19 vacant properties. Eventually, all of the remaining buildings will be demolished and a buffer of greenery will be planted to hide the plant from the surrounding community. So far, structures on 34 lots have been torn down.
Mitchell’s home on Avenue M at one time was surrounded with neighbors. Now, the block has just her house, the sewer plant and several rubble-filled lots where her friends once lived.
Some of her neighbors have been gone for months, but Mitchell held on the longest because she was hoping the city-parish would offer her more money for another home.
Deboria Halford was another Avenue M resident who had lived there since the 1970s. She took her buyout early and moved to Baker last March.
“The air is better. They did a good job giving me a nice home,” Halford said. “But I’m still hurting because I miss all of my neighbors.”
She said her neighborhood was extremely close, “like a family,” and it’s depressing that the expansion of the sewer plant made it unlivable. Halford said she’s only met one of her new neighbors so far.
Halford also wishes the city-parish had compensated the residents for damages related to living next to a sewer plant. She suffers from lung disease, and her children and grandchildren have allergies she believes are related to the air tainted by the sewer plant.
In 1996, residents filed a lawsuit against the city-parish seeking relocation costs and damages related to the expansion of the sewer plant into their neighborhood. After 17 years of litigation, the courts ultimately ruled in favor of the city-parish, saying that by and large, the government didn’t owe the residents anything for putting a sewer plant in their front yards.
Throughout the litigation, the city-parish attempted to settle with residents, offering to relocate them. However, many residents rejected the settlements, hoping for additional compensation for pain and suffering.
But in 2011, the Baton Rouge Metro Council directed the Mayor’s Office to craft a plan to relocate the residents. At the same time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was putting pressure on the city-parish to buy out the homeowners out of concern for their well-being.
Ultimately, the city-parish was able to fund the relocations from the $1.6 billion federally mandated sewer overhaul program. The program, funded with a half-cent sales tax, is aimed at fixing the parish’s crumbling, undersized sewer system, which is prone to backups in people’s homes and streets. The program, which is overseen by the EPA, had a deadline of 2015. But the city-parish requested a three-year extension to allow more funds to be collected through sales taxes to fund the buyouts.
The sewer program, with more than 80 percent of its construction projects finished or in progress, is on track to be finished by Dec. 31, 2018.
The original budget for the buyout and buffer project was $5.6 million. The city-parish already has spent $5.5 million and likely will spend another $1.3 million, said Josh Crowe, a project manager with CH2M Hill, which is overseeing the city-parish sewer program.
The relocation process itself has drawn on for more than a year. Many residents were initially upset about the money being offered for their homes, saying they wouldn’t be able to find comparable houses at those prices. But not one of the 41 property owners is contesting the offers in the legal process made available to them.
On average, the city-parish spent about $115,000 per residential property owner for new homes and relocation costs. The amount each property owner received was based on the assessed value of their home and the cost of finding a similarly sized home in a different part of the parish.
Mitchell said the city-parish valued her home at $85,000. She’d hoped for more money to get a nicer home. But she said at this point, she’s just ready to move and end this chapter of her life.
“It’s not my dream home that I was looking to have, but I think I can make it be what I want it to be,” she said. “It can be a place where my family can live together comfortably.”