The Amite River Basin Commission expects to soon begin buying some of the property needed to mitigate wetlands damaged by construction of the Comite River Diversion Canal.
Commission Executive Director Dietmar Rietschier said a commission contractor is working with “willing sellers” for the purchase of land in a 2,500-acre mitigation zone designated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal sponsor for the long-delayed canal.
The channel would divert flood waters from the Comite River, a tributary of the Amite River, to the Mississippi River through Lilly Bayou southwest of Zachary.
The canal, proposed to run east-west between Baker and Zachary, is expected to reduce flood levels in East Baton Rouge Parish along the Comite River and to a lesser extent on the Amite River at Denham Springs.
“At this moment, in two or three weeks, we’ll be in position to buy as much land as possible from willing sellers,” Rietschier said.
The commission’s task is to buy about 800 acres for wetlands mitigation to offset the damage to wetlands caused by construction of the Lilly Bayou “drop structure” west of U.S. 61 in East Baton Rouge Parish that will slow the rush of floodwaters from the canal into the Mississippi River.
The acreage also would include land to mitigate what the Corps of Engineers calls the first phase of actual canal construction, bridges needed on U.S. 61, La. 19 and La. 67 along the canal route and a drop structure where the canal crosses Baton Rouge Bayou, Rietschier said.
Eventually, he said, the commission must buy about 1,700 acres.
The commission and the state Department of Transportation and Development took responsibility for acquiring property over concerns that the Corps of Engineers was moving too slowly.
A 2010 legislative act, however, included language barring the Amite River Basin Commission from expropriating property for mitigation purposes.
Rietschier and commission attorney Larry Bankston said the amendment to a levee district “cleanup” bill was inserted without the commission’s knowledge.
The commission attempted this year to amend the law to allow the commission to use “friendly” expropriation lawsuits for the sole purpose of clearing up title problems with land owned by interested sellers.
By the time the bill got out of the House of Representatives, it had been amended to the point that it was useless, Rietschier said.
“It was razooed. We had it killed in a Senate committee,” Bankston said.
The original bill, House Bill 423, also would have allowed sellers to get access to the Comite across their former property and would have allowed them to retain the mineral rights, Bankston and Rep. Bodi White, R-Central, said during a House committee hearing before the bill was shelved.
The commission still has expropriation powers for land needed to construct the canal, and the commission published a legal notice Aug. 17 on proposed procedures should expropriation be needed to acquire land in the path of the canal.
Bankston said legislation setting up the commission refers to DOTD rules for expropriation “where applicable,” and the proposed rules under consideration are modifications of the DOTD procedures.
As an example, the DOTD procedures require approval for certain expropriation measures by the “chief bridge engineer,” Bankston said.
“We don’t have a bridge engineer,” he added.
The rules have been sent to the appropriate House and Senate committees for review, Bankston said.
The proposal’s final part acknowledges the prohibition against expropriating land for mitigation purposes, Bankston said.
The commission is seeking public comment, in writing, on the proposed rules through Oct. 5, according to the legal notice.