PONCHATOULA — The board that oversees Port Manchac agreed Tuesday to study whether it makes sense to lease the port property for a mixed-use development and swamp resort.

The Louisiana attorney general issued a recent opinion that the South Tangipahoa Port Commission has the authority to lease the property for such a development if it wants to do so.

But the commission decided to hold off until a a study can be done to determine whether such a lease is the "highest and best use" for the 40-acre property.

"We've just learned we can make it (the port) something else. The question is, 'Should we?'" asked Bill Joubert, a port commissioner and an economic development expert at Southeastern Louisiana University. 

The six-member commission voted unanimously during its regular monthly meeting at Ponchatoula City Hall to move forward with putting out a request for proposals for such a study. Proposals are due in 45 days.

The port has struggled to attract industrial and traditional port tenants, and the commission has been considering an unconventional proposal to lease the port property to private developers.

The developers promise to transform the port from a gray, industrial worksite to a colorful, vibrant paradise with palm trees, ice cream stands and a boardwalk.

They have said the site would include about 100 single-family homes, a hotel and 400 to 500 cabins, condominiums and apartments. The Village at Manchac is proposed to be a $90 million development of the port property and an adjacent 100 acres the port has authority to market.

But the proposal has drawn concerns from some Ponchatoula-area residents, who say it would destroy valuable wetlands, put people in harm's way during a hurricane and place additional pressure on local roads, fire departments and schools.

And the board's attorney had cautioned in July that the port might be overstepping its authority by allowing a drastic transformation of the port, which is to the south of Ponchatoula.

The commission sought advice from Attorney General Jeff Landry's office in July about its legal authority to sign an agreement with backers of the Village at Manchac.

Port attorney Andre Coudrain told the commissioners the attorney general opinion issued Friday gives them a "pretty blank slate" to do what they wish with the port, so long as it is in the public interest.

"In my view, it does give the commission broad authority to enter into a transaction on this property that is not a traditional port function,” Coudrain said.

The attorney general's opinion says a mixed-use development would be allowed, because the law creating the port allows for commercial, recreational and business purposes.

Coudrain said there would be some outstanding questions regarding reimbursements to the state, deed restrictions and existing leases, but those could be overcome if the port wishes.

The "best and highest use study" was first proposed by Joubert. The board will need to vote at a public meeting to select from the proposals, which will likely vary in price, duration and scope. 

The port is currently being used by a tenant that blends chemicals at the site. Until now, port officials have concentrated on upgrading the facility for more industrial uses.

Commissioners heard from supporters and opponents of the Village at Manchac project at Tuesday's meeting.

Terry Jones, a developer involved in the Village at Manchac project, said he was pleased with the attorney general's opinion. He asked the port commission to move forward with negotiating the MOU.

In June and July, the port commission considered entering into a memorandum of understanding with the Village at Manchac developers. The agreement would have granted the developers 18 months to conduct feasibility studies, while port officials would have been prevented from marketing the property. At the end of the contract, the developers would have the right to a a fair market lease.

Several opponents of the development, including representatives from the Save Manchac Coalition, asked the port commissioners to consider whether the Village at Manchac project was truly in the "public interest."

"We have to be concerned with Ponchatoula, and the swamp at Manchac is a natural barrier, and it protects us. If we cut into that, I think it will be damaging to this area, as well as Manchac," said Linda McLellan, a resident of Ponchatoula. 

Jones said after the meeting that the developers could purchase the 100 undeveloped acres from their original owner without the port's approval, but he is not interested in purchasing that property if he cannot also use the industrial port. Jones said he is listening to the community concerns and wants to work with the local residents.


Follow Caroline Grueskin on Twitter, @cgrueskin.