Denham Springs — For years, much of the land intended to house expansions to a Walker industrial park was protected as wetlands. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers changed the designation last year, the city and parish rushed to fund road and utility expansions, and last week the property owners said to expect big news at the site soon.
The Livingston Economic Development Council, which owns the land, held its annual meeting Thursday. Outgoing Board of Directors Chairman Buddy Wells joked that leaders had to take “a blood oath” to keep details about the park under wraps.
In the mid-’80s, the LEDC purchased about 200 acres of pine forest north of U.S. 190 to the east of La. 449 to develop as an industrial park, LEDC President Randy Rogers said.
“Livingston Parish was just lacking true industrial sites,” he said.
In 1986, the Chicago Bridge & Iron Company was the first to move in, followed by Waste Management. Currently, about half of the 200-acre site is developed and occupied.
In 1998, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers visited the site and determined “a lot” of the area qualified as wetlands, said Rob Heffner, chief of the surveillance and enforcement section of the Corps’ New Orleans District. Building in wetlands requires special permits and environmental considerations.
“Wetlands are kind of a bugaboo to deal with,” Rogers said.
The LEDC president said about 70 percent of the undeveloped land was designated wetlands, and beginning in 2011, the LEDC challenged the ruling.
“We didn’t think they did a real thorough analysis. … Not all the acreage the Corps deemed wetlands met the requirements,” he said.
During Thursday’s meeting, he told attendees that he “couldn’t get a duck to land there.”
Last February, the Corps changed the wetlands designations, and Rogers said now only about 30 percent of the land is protected.
“It was for us a pretty dramatic change,” he said.
Heffner said engineers evaluate soil, vegetation and hydrology when making a determination and that sometimes the ecology at a location shifts over time. He called wetlands “dynamic systems … subject to change.”
When the new wetlands designation was announced, the LEDC, city of Walker and Livingston Parish began looking to improve the site. The city received $1.3 million from the Metropolitan Planning Organization to improve Industrial Park Drive, said Walker Chief of Operations Fred Raiford. They’re looking for about $3.2 million more to expand the road and upgrade utilities. The money will likely come from a combination of local, state and federal sources. Ultimately, the city and council want to add a second entrance to the park from U.S. 190 to ease traffic flow.
Rogers believes utilities will be ready for a new tenant by next year, though he declined to confirm who the tenant would be until all the paperwork is signed. Wells promised it would “change the face of the industrial park.”
It is the most recent in a string of upgrades to the industrial sector in Walker announced in recent weeks. Gov. Bobby Jindal visited Oxlean Manufacturing down the road last month when the company announced a $2 million expansion. Further west on U.S. 190, Northshore Technical Community College is planning a new campus to teach future workers, and students at Walker High School are taking classes in the school’s expanding vocational program.
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