One year after St. James Parish officials defeated private investors' plans to build a petroleum tank farm in Vacherie, a three-parish port authority has hopes of luring a major industrial project to the same site along the Mississippi River.
The proposed Petroplex tank farm roiled St. James Parish politics for nearly a decade as residents living near the proposed site, which is near the St. John the Baptist Parish line, opposed the operation through every level of federal, state and parish regulatory review.
The investors gave up last year after spending more than $37 million but lost a key early test in federal court over a parish land use plan that earmarks the tank farm site for homes and agriculture.
Paul Aucoin, executive director of the South Louisiana Port Commission, signed a purchase agreement Thursday for the commission to buy 1,684 acres of river frontage, cane fields and woods from the Bank of Montgomery in Natchitoches for $9.9 million, the deal says. As part of the agreement, the commission put down $900,000 of the final purchase price on Thursday.
The bank had repossessed the property from the Petroplex investors in December in exchange for forgiveness of part of the investors' $20 million debt on the property and had been planning an auction 6 p.m. June 1 at a Gonzales hotel, land records show. The remainder of the loan was already guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The commission's jurisdiction runs across 54 miles of Mississippi River in St. James, St. John and St. Charles parishes and is a hot bed for industrial projects looking to take advantage of the deep-water access, rail lines, cheap and abundant natural gas, and the parishes' workers, Aucoin said. More than $23 billion in new projects have already been announced for the nation's leading port by tonnage. This site wasn't one the commission could pass up, he added.
"That's what we do. The port's mission is to entice industry to come locate within our port district and create jobs," he said.
The commission, which owns its own port, grain and other facilities, finances some projects though its power to issue bonds and also markets the region's properties, has 30 days to conduct title searches, conduct a formal land appraisal and perform other due diligence before the land deal is finalized.
Aucoin said the commission had been working on its bid for the June auction when bank officials approached them about working out an individual sale, which the port commissioners blessed Tuesday evening in an open vote after a closed-door session at their office in LaPlace, according to a meeting audio recording.
Two commissioners, Patrick Sellars and Whitney Hickerson, abstained. Both had been investors in one of the entities that held the Petroplex site before the bank repossessed it. A commission attorney said the men previously divested their interests. Aucoin said the men abstained in an abundance of caution.
News of the imminent purchase circulated in St. James Wednesday and Thursday and surprised parish leaders who had been anticipating the result of the planned bank auction.
St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel said he didn't find out about the planned sale until Thursday afternoon and added that he knew of as many as five groups looking to buy the site at the June 1 auction, including those eyeing plans for less intensive uses.
Aucoin said the commission will try to work with parish officials on changing the site's land use designation to allow an industrial prospect, but Roussel suggested doing so will be a tough.
After years of battle, Petroplex lost the key early court ruling on the parish land use plan in May 2016 and then ran out of money and withdrew from the suit. The parish is now grappling with west bank residents pushing to change the parish land use plan further to add buffer zones and other amendments in reaction a wave of major plant announcements near rural communities.
"I just think they're going to have a tough row to hoe, a tough hill to climb going through the Planning Commission and the Parish Council to find favorability for industrial purposes because of the outcome of that court proceedings (on Petroplex) and because of a lot of frustrations that were stated in the past," Roussel said Friday. "To overcome all that will be gigantic."
Roussel, who said he is keeping an open mind, has already been asked by Aucoin for a meeting.
Parish Councilman Ken Brass, who represents the area, said he had just learned about the purchase, was still gathering information and wasn't sure of residents' current feelings. Councilman Clyde Cooper, who represents another part of St. James that is looking at the land use changes in reaction to other industrial projects, said he expects opposition to re-emerge.
"I'm sure people directly next to it are going to be against it, any type of industrial facility coming in the area. I don’t think that's changed," Cooper said.
Aucoin said that even if the commission can't get an industrial facility on the site, the price was low enough that the commission can envision less intensive uses that would still be profitable for the port authority.
The commission, however, which is a political subdivision of the state created by the Legislature, also may have an ace up its sleeve.
Commission property is not subject to newly imposed local zoning ordinances. But Aucoin said commission's attorneys aren't sure if that power applies in this case: land that the commission buys after local land use laws have taken effect.
"Our lawyers are uncertain, you know, about that. We have them looking at what our options may be. We'll just see how that plays out, but we felt at the price that we got it for, we're comfortable either way," Aucoin said.