A request by the Port of New Orleans to change the land-use designation for two areas of marshland along the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway has sparked a debate about the value of wetlands within the city.

In October, the New Orleans City Planning Commission granted the port’s request to amend the city’s master plan, its general framework for how land should be used. It was the first of several steps required before the port can develop the two properties for industrial use.

The properties are mostly out of sight to New Orleans residents, and parts of them are more suitable for boats than boots. But many say the wetlands are valuable because they store rainwater and guard against hurricane storm surge. They say the city should preserve the area instead of allowing it to be developed.

The port questions that, noting that the areas lie behind two parts of the hurricane protection system.

Flood protection experts come down closer to the environmentalists’ position. But it’s complicated.

It may be hard to figure out the best use for the property because all wetlands are not created equal, said Dana Brown. She’s a consultant for the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, which encourages the city to manage stormwater better rather than try to pump it all out to Lake Pontchartrain.

“There are wetlands, and there are wetlands,” Brown said.

Developers wanting to fill in wetlands protected under the federal Clean Water Act need permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But just because your feet will get wet walking across the port’s properties doesn’t mean they’re protected under that law.

In any case, the port's request still needs to clear several regulatory hurdles. The Planning Commission’s decision to change the master plan must be ratified by the City Council. And the commission and the council, in addition to amending the master plan, also need to rezone the two properties for industrial use.

Port seeks development

The properties are located in a triangle-shaped area between eastern New Orleans and Chalmette, on both sides of the Intracoastal Waterway.

One section of land sits between Almonaster Boulevard and the northern bank of the waterway, just west of Paris Road.

Under the city’s master plan, it’s designated for “planned development,” which is common for areas the city considers environmentally sensitive. This allows for limited residential, commercial and even some industrial uses. Among the restrictions: 60 percent of the land must remain open space, such as wetlands, recreation trails, playgrounds and parks.

The second piece of land is located on the south side of the Intracoastal Waterway. It’s designated as a “natural area,” which allows only development that would cause little or no impact.

Karley Frankic, a planner for the port, told the Planning Commission that both properties were recategorized when the city passed the master plan in 2010. Before that, she said, they were used industrially, to store dredged sediment and other material, and so changing the land-use designation would just recognize their former use.

The sites in question could be used for a number of purposes, such as a distribution center, a transloading facility or a packaging facility — but only if the city rezones them.

Frankic argued the current land-use designation impedes the port’s ability to carry out its state-mandated mission to use its properties for commerce.

Properties are protected

The port first asked the city to change the designation of the land in January. At that time, the Planning Commission rejected the request, agreeing with its staff's concerns about flooding, before changing its mind last month.

The staff said the wetlands are important because they’re part of “redundant stormwater management plans.” Industrial development would hinder flood protection, they said.

However, Frankic said the wetlands are essentially useless for flood protection because they’re behind levees and the Lake Borgne Surge Barrier. The levees are 10 to 14 feet high in that area. The 26-foot-high surge barrier was built to prevent water from being funneled into the city from Lake Borgne, as happened after Hurricane Katrina.

“If we want redundancy, we’ve got a storm surge barrier and a levee district,” Frankic said. If those fail, she said, the port’s land “isn’t going to save the city.”

Donnell Jackson, a spokesman for the port, said it tried to sell the parcels to private mitigation banks. That’s a system in which developers buy credits to create wetlands in one place so they can destroy them in another. There was no interest in the properties because they are inside the city’s flood protection system, Jackson said.

“We have exhausted the effort to sell or lease the property for this use, and it currently has little to no value,” he said. Almost all the land in the city labeled “natural area” is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or a private mitigation bank, he said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service labels most of the 200 acres as wetlands, as well as most of the surrounding areas. That designation is meant to promote conservation of areas that are not totally dry but not aquatic. 

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the areas are protected by state or federal law. Jackson questioned whether the port’s property should even be considered wetlands because it hasn’t been designated as such by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates construction in wetlands.

However, Ricky Boyett, a spokesman for the Corps, said the agency wouldn’t get involved in the dispute until it receives a request to fill in the properties, and that hasn’t happened.

Competing arguments

Environmental groups say that developing any wetlands runs counter to the state’s 50-year plan to protect the coast and restore some of what’s already crumbled into the Gulf. The restoration plan says, “Wetland areas inside the hurricane protection system need to remain intact and undeveloped.”

Harvey Stern, representing the New Orleans chapter of the Sierra Club, told the Planning Commission the port has offered no “compelling reason” to develop nearly 200 acres of open space, especially when flood protection plans call for “multiple barriers of defense.”

Scott Eustis, a coastal wetlands specialist for the Gulf Restoration Network, said the wetlands are valuable precisely because they are inside the city limits.

Even if the wetlands don’t reduce storm surge, he said, they help prevent flooding caused by heavy rainfall. That’s because the wetlands act as a natural sponge, trapping water and releasing it slowly over time.

When the city experiences drainage problems in a heavy thunderstorm, as it did a few times this summer, the wetlands hold the water in the area until city pumps can catch up, he said.

“We can’t afford more water on our levees, in our homes or on our pumping systems,” Eustis said.

Alex Kolker, a subsidence expert and Tulane University professor, said the Port of New Orleans and opponents both have valid arguments.

On the one hand, he said, the wetlands in question won’t do much for storm surge protection. But he agreed they provide storage for rainwater. Developing them, he said, would be a “considerable concern.”

“Having wetland doesn’t prevent subsidence, but getting rid of it can cause it,” Kolker said.

Eustis said the biggest problem with developing the land is that it can’t be undone easily.

“You don’t fill wetlands because you can’t fix it,” he said. “Marshes take 10 years for soils to fluff up, to develop that wetland sponge.”

Follow Della Hasselle on Twitter, @dellahasselle.