Facing loud objections from residents concerned about saving some live oak trees on the site and preserving the adjacent neighborhood’s quiet atmosphere, the Jefferson Parish Council on Wednesday defeated a proposal to build a RaceTrac gas station at Wichers Drive and Barataria Boulevard in Marrero.
The vote was unanimous, with one abstention.
An attorney for the applicants said his clients will consider suing the parish to get the council’s decision reversed, arguing that the proposal satisfied all parish regulations and deserved final approval after receiving a preliminary green light earlier this month.
“I believe there are significant grounds that the decision ... was arbitrary and capricious and would be overturned by the court system,” said lawyer Stephen Dwyer, whose wife, Jennifer Van Vrancken, sits on the Parish Council but who abstained from voting on the matter. “When a business comes into the parish and follows all the rules ... and then gets denied in really what amounts to an arbitrary manner, then the business has to fight back and protect itself.”
The RaceTrac corporation and the owner of the property in question, Marrero Land and Improvement Association, wanted permission to build a 24-hour gas station on a portion of what used to be the site of the Hope Haven orphanage. They wanted to remove seven large oak trees that were planted about the time Hope Haven opened in the 1920s so Wichers Drive could be extended.
Many residents opposed the plan almost immediately, and an online petition against it gathered more than 2,000 signatures. The residents said removing the trees would erase part of the area’s history and questioned whether a gas station would fit in at that location.
Nonetheless, the parish’s Planning Advisory Board on Jan. 14 recommended that the council approve the project.
Before the council’s vote, Merlin Dufour, who said he lives less than a half-mile from the site, said the RaceTrac would bring “24/7 activity” to an area that is “inactive” by 7 p.m. on weekdays and “practically dormant on weekends.”
“This proposed business ... will not be harmonious with surrounding residences and businesses,” Dufour said.
Waggaman resident Marienne Arata said the council would never entertain the idea of cutting down such historic trees on the east bank, adding that an ordinance protecting similar trees in Old Metairie should apply to the whole parish.
Gretna resident Laurie Ledet said, “I don’t understand why this business wants to go where they are not wanted.”
Dwyer replied that the gasoline station would not disturb another 18 live oak trees on the tract, all of which would be nurtured by an irrigation system to be installed at his clients’ cost.
Vincent Vastola, director of real estate for Marrero Land, disputed that the neighborhood is as quaint as some residents suggested, saying ambulances are constantly coming and going from the nearby West Jefferson Medical Center.
Brad Smith, Atlanta-based RaceTrac’s real estate manager, said the company intended to plant several new trees to replace the ones to be cut down. He said the business would offer up to 25 jobs for local residents.
But nothing swayed Councilman Paul Johnston, who represents the area in question. Johnston asked his colleagues to join him in rejecting the gas station, and they all did, except for Van Vrancken.
Johnston said he went against the planning board’s recommendation because his constituents overwhelmingly did not want the business there.
“It’s just not a fit,” Johnston said.