A state district court is expected to rule in coming weeks on a lawsuit filed against Jefferson Parish by landowners who claim the parish used zoning laws to kill a deal for an affordable-housing complex on Behrman Highway in 2007.
Testimony wrapped up recently in Thelma and Richard Berry’s suit, which seeks $1.2 million minus the current value of the land. Both sides now await a ruling from 24th Judicial District Judge Stephen Enright.
The couple sued the parish in 2008, claiming it abused its power by using a zoning study and construction moratorium to quash a time-sensitive deal with Volunteers of America, which was interested in buying their Terrytown property for $1.2 million and building a 200-unit housing complex there for low-income seniors and the disabled.
Richard Berry said Volunteers of America’s end of the deal, which was struck in 2006, was heavily dependent on getting state tax credits, but that the parish followed up Councilman Chris Roberts’ public objections to the project with delays and a split rezoning, effectively killing the deal.
The parish denies the accusation, and Dan Ranson — the attorney handling the case for the parish — said the development was simply inconsistent with the comprehensive plan the parish adopted in 2003 . He said the zoning study was apolitical and warranted, as was the rezoning that followed.
The 4.4-acre property at 1008 Behrman Highway, which has a road running through it, was rezoned commercial in the front half and residential in the back half.
For Berry, the case amounts to an overreach of government power that usurped the rights of private property owners.
He said the $50 million development would have been a much-needed investment in the area, where the surrounding properties run the gamut from a boys’ home to a horse farm, with a variety of commercial uses in between.
Ranson said these are all nonconforming uses that are allowed because they predate adoption of the comprehensive plan, but that new development needs to fit the parish’s vision and the apartment complex would have been too dense.
Berry said Roberts called for the study in a motion from the floor during a meeting and that he wasn’t property notified of the study or the rezoning. For its part, the parish says Berry had an opportunity to participate in the process and he chose not to take advantage of it.
In the lawsuit and in a recent interview, Berry noted Roberts’ public opposition to the development, and his suit quotes Roberts as making public statements about not wanting development that would bring “poor New Orleanians” into his district.
Roberts said he cannot comment on pending litigation, but during a Parish Council meeting in May, he said nearby residents simply didn’t want the development. At that meeting, the council voted against settling the suit, and Roberts said the case had gone on long enough that it made no sense for it not to go to trial.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.