Medical supply giant Medline is moving forward with plans to build a huge distribution center in Tangipahoa Parish after plans to build in St. Tammany Parish encountered opposition, lawsuits and government infighting.
But what local government officials in Tangipahoa see as a big win is angering some residents who live near the planned distribution center. They are questioning the sudden decision to build near their homes and have now filed a lawsuit challenging the rezoning — a replay of what happened in St. Tammany.
The 650,000-square-foot distribution center and office space will be located adjacent to the Hammond airport on two tracts of land purchased by Medline. The property at the southeast corner of the Industrial Park Road and Vineyard Road intersection was recently rezoned from residential to light industrial by the Hammond City Council in order for construction to move forward.
Construction is expected to begin within weeks and the site should be operational in early 2022, Medline said.
“Our intention has always been to expand close to our customers and our employees,” company spokesman Jesse Greenberg said in a statement. “When the original St. Tammany site was no longer viable despite over a year’s worth of work and full parish council approval, we needed to quickly transition to a suitable site. We found that site in Hammond, along with city and parish officials who worked closely with us and the community to advance this project.”
The deal in St. Tammany Parish encountered stiff opposition from nearby residents who raised concerns about traffic and drainage. They filed suit a year ago, challenging the Parish Council’s decision to rezone the nearly 70-acre property.
Then, in August, Parish President Mike Cooper’s administration denied a land-clearing permit for the site, citing drainage concerns. That prompted the property’s owner, All State Financial, to sue the parish. The parish ultimately settled out of court last month, agreeing to issue the permit, but by that time Medline was moving forward with plans to locate in Hammond.
The issues that roiled homeowners in St. Tammany are now being raised by residents living across the street from the new site in Hammond.
“If I had known this a year and a half ago before I made the decision to buy my home, I wouldn’t have bought it. I’m not the only one,” said John Streeter, who is retired and moved into a home roughly a football field away from the Hammond property 13 months ago.
Public officials with Tangipahoa Parish and the city of Hammond have celebrated Medline’s decision to relocate the distribution center, highlighting the 450 jobs it will bring to the area and 350 construction jobs once work gets underway.
“I have no shame in being Plan B,” said Ginger Cangelosi, executive director of Tangipahoa Economic Development. “We are extremely excited to have Medline to Tangipahoa Parish to build their facility. They are exactly the kind of company that we try so hard to attract to this area.”
After local officials were contacted in August by Medline about moving the project to Tangipahoa, the process moved quickly. The Hammond City Council approved a request to rezone two parcels of land set aside for the $45 million project at a Dec. 8 meeting despite some pushback from residents.
But the lawsuit that has now been filed by residents near the site, argues that the council acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” and violated city laws when it approved the rezoning.
“I have never seen a zoning case move so rapidly with no regard to the actual residents,” said Robert Ellis, a New Orleans lawyer who filed the lawsuit on behalf of eight residents living near the Hammond site.
“This is a giant parcel of land that’s being rezoned from low residential to light industrial, and it’s surrounded by neighborhoods. I would be so mad if I bought my forever home and the city just decided they wanted to make it an industrial park," Ellis added.
Hammond officials declined to comment on the pending litigation, as did Hammond Mayor Pete Panepinto.
Medline and parish officials say the company has taken numerous actions to address the concerns of the residents. The company promises to develop the property with 500-year flood protection, rather than the 100-year flood protection standard, take steps to lower the impact on traffic congestion by promising to build a roundabout near the site and directing traffic in and out of the center to a singular thoroughfare and undertake beautification projects around the property to prevent the center from being an eyesore.
“To Medline’s credit, every obstacle, every concern Medline met and talked about how hard they’ll work and committed to making accommodations to address those concerns,” Tangipahoa Parish President Robby Miller said. “(The residents’) concerns made this a much better project overall.”
Streeter, who is not signed onto the lawsuit, said there was nothing Medline could do to convince the more than 200 residents living near the Hammond site who signed onto a petition to halt the project.
“The people here are totally upset with the whole thing, and there’s no appeasement,” Streeter said. “If someone at Medline thinks that they’ve appeased the residents by whatever they’re promising the council, it’s a bunch of hooey.”
For St. Tammany Parish officials, the lawsuit in Tangipahoa is reviving hope that Medline can be persuaded to return to their parish. Mike Lorino, chairman of the St. Tammany Parish Council, said that Cooper has reached out to Medline, which he considers important in wooing the company back.
There are still legal hurdles. The original lawsuit challenging St. Tammany's decision to rezone the land has yet to be resolved. A hearing on several motions, including one seeking summary judgment in favor of the rezoning, will be held in 22nd Judicial District Court on Tuesday.
That could mean the legal fight in St. Tammany is ending while the one in Tangipahoa is just beginning, Lorino said. "There's no timetable on the suit over there," he said. "Anytime there's a lawsuit, you never know what will happen."