A concrete company’s controversial dormitory for migrant employees drew close to two hours of heated discussion at the Livingston Parish Council, with opponents voicing concerns about safety and speculating the company might be using some workers who are in the country illegally.
Premier Concrete Products, a complex on La. Highway 16 in Watson, went through an approval process in the fall for a 46-bed residential structure on its site with the intent to house workers at the company that runs 24 hours a day.
The controversy started at last month’s council meeting when council member Garry “Frog” Talbert said the approval process should have been for a commercial venture, not a residential.
If it had gone through the proper channels, he said, there would have been a public comment process in which the community would have a chance to voice opinions.
But, over the course of more than 90 minutes Thursday, the issue evolved into the parish’s lack of zoning laws, a concern about immigrants bringing diseases to the parish, crime and the depreciation of property values. Ultimately the council decided in a 5-4 vote to send the company’s construction project back to the planning committee to go through the proper channels.
The owner of the company, Cary Goss, has remedied the permitting issue, but Talbert had argued at the council’s last meeting in late July that in doing that, they skipped crucial steps like traffic impact and drainage studies.
A controversial dorm-style building under construction on a concrete manufacturer's site caused a stir at the Livingston Parish Council meetin…
Several residents at July's meeting expressed concerns about the impact of the dormitory on their neighborhood, but most of the council members said then they didn’t have enough information to make an informed decision on how to proceed.
Stephen Muller, who has lived beside Premier for its entire existence in Livingston Parish, about 20 years, addressed the council in July and did so again Thursday.
“I think it’s time we call it what it is. I mean we call apartments apartments, we call condos condos, houses houses, and this is not just a building, it is a migrant workers dormitory,” Muller said, eliciting applause from several audience members.
Muller questioned whether there would be a screening process for everyone staying on site, whether the community would be informed if any workers, namely the ones on working visas, were arrested and if noise issues were considered.
His concerns were echoed by other residents, including Rebecca Roberts, who lives in Baton Rouge but owns four rental houses in Livingston Parish, including three near Premier.
She said her homes in Watson have never flooded before but are now. She also noted she had to jump through many hoops in getting permits for her homes. She suggested Premier skirted the process because it’s a wealthy company.
“Call it what you want, try to hide behind a name, it doesn’t matter. People are being housed evidently for low wages and it’s a migrant camp," she said. "We need to make sure nothing like this ever happens to Livingston Parish.”
Premier’s attorney, Kevin Landreneau, suggested Talbert’s push to bring the company before the council publicly was politically-motivated.
Landreneau said many of the workers on site have been employed at Premier Concrete for as many as five years. He argued that having accommodation on site would actually reduce the traffic impact, because employees could stay there at the end of their shifts.
A few audience members defended Premier Concrete’s development.
Denham Springs resident Nicole Mullins said it’s likely the owner of Premier Concrete is providing the housing and medical expenses for the employees, meaning their relatively low wages — which had been discussed earlier in the meeting — is offset by the total package of their employment.
“Everybody’s concerned about illegal immigrants working there, that’s it,” she said, following a string of speakers who made reference to concerns about migrant workers but had not explicitly mentioned illegal presence.
“If he is (housing) illegal workers that’s a whole other issue you guys really can’t do anything about,” she said, referencing the council. “If somebody knows there’s illegal workers, they know for a fact, call ICE. If the man’s not doing anything illegal, he’s not doing anything illegal and there’s not really much we can do about that and we have to accept that.”
Landreneau, one of the last speakers and the only representative from Premier Concrete who spoke, said his company would go through the permitting process if it needed to.
“We’re going to do every single thing to make sure you’re satisfied and this council is satisfied, we’re going to jump through the hoops even though we don’t have to,” he said.