Challenged by St. James Parish officials to file suit, Petroplex International did just that Thursday, suing the parish over its decision last month to shut down construction of the company’s storage tank farm in Vacherie.
The Baton Rouge-based company, in its suit against the parish and Parish President Timothy Roussel, is asking, among other things, for damages caused by the shutdown.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court’s Eastern District in New Orleans, also names as a defendant Ryan Donadieu, the supervisor of planning and permitting for St. James Parish.
Petroplex filed the suit “reluctantly,” Larry Sciacchetano, managing partner and chief executive officer of Petroplex, said Thursday. “We did not want to sue. We tried everything to avoid it.”
Sciacchetano said parish officials in December actually suggested that Petroplex sue the parish and ask for a declaratory judgment. Such a judgment resolves legal uncertainties but doesn’t award damages.
Messages left with Roussel and with parish government spokeswoman Melissa Wilkins were not returned Thursday. Both were in Washington, D.C., at a parish-related convention, an employee with the parish office said.
Roussel issued a stop-work order in early December on the tank farm site. At the time, Roussel said work on the site wasn’t being done in a timely matter and the company had mostly just moved dirt around.
However, Sciacchetano said dirt work is the first, vital step in the project.
“When you build a tank, you preload dirt on the foundation, 24 feet of dirt on the site, just for the first tank,” he said.
Petroplex purchased the 1,790-acre site for $19 million in 2011, when the property was zoned industrial.
That changed in April, when St. James Parish adopted a new land-use plan that changed the designation of the Petroplex property from industrial to residential and agricultural.
Sciacchetano said his company applied for an exemption with the parish’s new land-use plan committee and was rejected.
The Parish Council, however, overruled that committee decision in May, issuing a land-use waiver to Petroplex after the company agreed to abide by a special resolution naming certain regulations and timelines for the project.
Sciacchetano said that in the first week of December, his company received an email from the parish saying it was considering stopping work on the Petroplex project.
Sciacchetano arranged a meeting with parish officials for 1 p.m. on Dec. 4, he said, but parish employees went to the Petroplex site with a stop-work order in hand at 8 a.m. that day to send employees home.
The meeting planned for that afternoon went forward, Sciacchetano said, and was attended by several parish staff members, including Roussel and Parish Attorney Victor Franckiewicz. Sciacchetano said he sought for some way to move the project forward.
Petroplex had made an earlier commitment to the Parish Council that it would “put steel in the ground” by February, Sciacchetano said Thursday.
At the Dec. 4 meeting, he said, he told parish representatives that if the company didn’t meet that February deadline, “we will walk away from the permit and hold you harmless.”
Roussel and the others then left the room for 45 minutes, Sciacchetano said, returned and said, “Why don’t you sue us and ask for a declaratory judgment?”
Sciacchetano said he told them, “Well, we don’t want to sue, and if we have to sue you, we will sue you for damages.”
He said the company tried several times after the Dec. 4 meeting to make headway on the project and asked for a hearing before the Parish Council, which denied the request.
The lawsuit filed Thursday asks for a declaratory judgment that the section of the parish ordinance containing the land-use plan is invalid, unconstitutional and unenforceable.
The suit also seeks to prohibit the parish from attempting to enforce the land-use plan against the plaintiffs, and it asks for damages, as well as a trial by jury.
Petroplex had spent $33 million to date on the development of the project, prior to the stop-work order, the lawsuit says.
“We’re frustrated,” Sciacchetano said. “There’s some other agenda we don’t understand.
“A lot of the actions (of the parish) doesn’t make sense. Why do you want us to sue the parish? Unless you want to test the land-use plan,” he said.
In another matter regarding the Petroplex project, the Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors last week fined the lead contractor and engineering firm and three other companies over licensing issues.
At a Jan. 15 hearing of the licensing board, Dutch-based Verwater Group and QPS Engineering, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded no contest to failing to obtain state contractor’s licenses, said Brent Templet, investigator in the board’s compliance department.
The companies each have paid $2,500 in penalties and have applied for and received state contracting licenses, Templet said.
He also said two Louisiana companies, Byron E. Talbot Contractor, of Shriever, and A3M Vacuum Services, of Reserve, agreed to pay penalties and costs for entering into a contract with an unlicensed contractor.
A third Louisiana company, Hickerson Enterprises, of Vacherie, agreed to pay penalties and costs for doing work outside its state licensing classification, Templet said.
Advocate reporter David Mitchell contributed to this article.