DARROW — More than three years after the award of a $5.2 million federal scenic highways grant, a steamboat museum originally envisioned to perch on the Mississippi River batture near Houmas House Plantation and Gardens is still in the planning stages.
While expected to move forward, perhaps by this summer, the museum will relocate off the river and to the plantation home’s property along River Road. Houmas House owner Kevin Kelly, who is contributing $1.8 million to the museum project and is its prime mover, blamed the delays and the shift in location on expensive protective requirements imposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which governs development along levees that line the river.
“They make the rules. I just have to follow them, but I thought since I had a federal project going, I would be allowed to do it there, but I wasn’t,” Kelly said Friday.
A spokesman for the Corps of Engineers disputed Kelly’s claims, although paperwork provided by the Corps notes that revisions to plans had to be made at some point to comply with the agency’s requirements.
In April 2011, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded a 2010 National Scenic Byways g rant for the museum at Burnside Landing, officially given the label of “Louisiana River Road Steamboat Overlook Interpretative Center.” The grant is going to the Houmas House Foundation, a nonprofit group tied to the future museum.
As initially proposed, the museum building, built up on piers, would have rested 22 feet above the batture — the land between the levee and river. That building, which would have required driving piles into the batture and putting in fill, would have featured large windows to provide expansive views of modern-day river commerce in contrast to museum exhibits about the paddle-wheel era, plans show.
The museum would have been in a sharp bend in the Mississippi upriver of Donaldsonville and the Sunshine Bridge. The batture property is usually dry, except when the river is high, Kelly said.
To receive a Corps permit to build on the river, Kelly said, he would have had to build three cylindrical, 24-foot metal barriers known as “cellular cofferdam dolphins” to protect the museum and its visitors against runaway barges and ships.
“Instead of spending several million extra dollars, I moved the location,” Kelly said.
The museum building now will be built on the ground level between a park and a parking lot at Houmas House. A planned hotel for that spot will have to be moved elsewhere.
An 800-foot-long, open-air “interpretative area” will be built on top of the levee to provide views of the river, Kelly said. An elevated pedestrian bridge, also anticipated in the original museum plan, will allow visitors to walk from the Houmas House parking lot, over River Road, to the overlook area.
Officials within the Corps of Engineers’ regulatory and operations divisions in New Orleans, however, disputed Kelly’s claims that they required him to rework his plans, saying they only checked plans that already had called for the protective barriers.
“We just reviewed what they said they were going to do,” said Ricky Boyett, corps spokesman.
He provided Corps correspondence from December showing the agency’s operations division approved a permit for a museum with plans that included the dolphins. He also provided a permit application from August 2013 that called for the protective barriers.
Kelly, however, scoffed at Boyett’s statements Friday, pointing out that the Corps rejected an earlier permit application that lacked the dolphins.
He said Corps officials laughed at him and others backing the project during a permit hearing a few years ago, saying they told him they would never grant the permit because of concerns about runaway barges or ships hitting the museum.
In the Dec. 19 correspondence, Amy E. Powell, Corps operations manger for completed works, noted that Houmas House’s architects were told to revise the original permit application “to comply with our standard criteria, and to submit the additional information for our further review.”
It was that revised permit application, Powell wrote, that her division approved in December. Powell does not write what was added from the original application, but the revised application includes the dolphins.
Kelly said that if he was allowed to build on the batture without the dolphins, that would be his first choice. “If they want to give me a permit (and) I don’t need to build these islands, I’ll be happy to start construction right away, but they won’t give me one,” Kelly said.
Regardless of where the museum goes, the clock is ticking to get started. None of the DOT money earmarked for the museum has been transferred under the reimbursement grant, state highway officials said.
Houmas House Foundation has until September to have the grant money obligated to the project. Kelly has agreed to have final plans, an estimate and permits to state highway officials by May 31 so the Federal Highway Administration can obligate funding by the deadline, state and federal highway officials said.
“Houmas House has hired a consultant who is in the process of designing the museum,” Dustin Annison, spokesman of the state Department of Transportation and Development, said in an emailed response. “Once the plans are complete, we will review them to ensure they meet federal guidelines.”
DOTD and the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism administer the Scenic Byway Program in Louisiana.
Kelly said construction will have to be put out to bid as a public project and is hopeful that construction can start in late summer. Work is expected to last a year, he said.
The project has been a point of contention before. Kelly in 2011 alleged he was being shaken down by two former planning commissioners, including current Ascension Parish Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee, who were seeking his support to abolish a parish development ordinance.
Satterlee and former Commissioner Milton Clouatre Jr. disputed Kelly’s claims and made counterclaims of improper parish administration collusion with the plantation house owner. None of the allegations led to criminal or ethics charges or civil litigation.
On Wednesday, the parish Planning Commission gave the relocated museum and other changes its blessing. The plantation is in a parish historic district and requires an architectural and plan review.
“We have no objection to what they’re doing because we think this is one of the jewels of the parish and it needs to continue to do what it does, attract visitors and just be a great place to visit,” Planning Director Ricky Compton told the commission Wednesday.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.