ST. GABRIEL — Pat Hayden moved to the Spanish Lakes neighborhood off La. 30 nine years ago to escape the big city and be closer to her son and grandchildren then living nearby.

A retiree who serves on the board of the neighborhood homeowners association, Hayden, 65, lives in the 150-home subdivision and has been among a cadre of people trying to spread the word about a 440-acre warehouse and rail project proposed a few miles away along the Mississippi River.

Hayden and other residents who have moved to the new homes sprouting in St. Gabriel and in southwestern East Baton Rouge and eastern Iberville parishes say the project flies in the face of the city's intentions during incorporation in 1990s to prevent further industrialization outside designated areas. 

"We don't want it here," Hayden said.

031120 St. Gabriel Sunshine Site

Known as Railport, the project would mix more than 2 million-square-feet of warehouse space with a rail yard on agricultural land between La. 30 and River Road. The series of parallel tracks could hold more than 2,800 rail cars at a time once both phases are built and would tie into the nearby Canadian National Railway line. 

Backers say as many as 1,650 of the rail cars would hold plastic pellets produced in the region's chemical plants, but none of the cars or proposed warehouses would hold hazardous materials or require smokestacks. The combination of rail operations and future warehousing would create as many as 120 jobs of a variety of skill levels. Sites are being offered for purchase or lease. 

Chris Senegal, a business consultant working for Rail Logix, the Houston-based rail operator behind the project, said the river corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans has a need for this type of facility where plants can hold their empty rail cars and stockpiles of pellets.

"We do have some customers that, once it gets approved, are ready to commit to contracts for rail car storage," he said.

He declined to identify them. The venture was still working on warehouse customers.

Backers of the project are offering the town a $250,000 grant for a community enhancement project, promising to hire locally and say just the rail facility alone would add $100,000 per year in tax revenue.

Railport's backers expect the total investment would be nearly $87 million over both phases.

The three-term mayor of St. Gabriel, Lionel Johnson Jr., said that after hearing from those for and against the project, he can find no "immediate issues" and will support it.

"Personally, I don't like the loss of farm acreage, but I realize even if the land is developed residentially, that same acreage would be lost," he said.

The five-member city Planning and Zoning Commission, all of whose members Johnson appoints, is expected to consider at 6 p.m. Wednesday whether to recommend a rezoning request and setback variances for the project that would set the stage for a final City Council vote on March 19.

While some tank farms are nearby, the site is part of a 3,000-acre, family-owned tract zoned entirely for residential development at the base of a lightly developed bend in the river known as Plaquemine Point. The landowners of the mother tract had previously sought to rezone it entirely to heavy industry in 2015.

This time, the same landowners are seeking to rezone only the 440-acre piece devoted to Railport from residential to light industry.

Hayden and others fear, if this switch is granted, it would open the door to further rezonings of the remaining tract and elsewhere.

Marcia Hardy, who was part of the original incorporation drive in the 1990s, said the push started because the area had no zoning at the time and residents had to fight with state regulators over a proposed industrial facility. Amid that successful opposition effort, residents wanted to have a say in the future. 

The opposition to Railport "is not anti-industry," Hardy said. "We have huge amounts of land, inside St. Gabriel, that is zoned industrial and has access to the rail line. This thing is not anti-industry. This thing is about changing land that is zoned residential to industrial and then changing the setbacks that we have in order to protect our citizens from encroachment. That's what this is about."

Senegal said the rail yard would operate only in the day time and run cars at slow speeds to avoid banging noises. He added that neighborhoods have happily coexisted with another Rail Logix operation in Texas. 

Hardy scoffed at that idea.

"Well, I've got a bridge I can sell you, too. I mean, really," she said.

Johnson, the mayor, disputed idea that the proposed rezoning would conflict with the original intentions of incorporation, saying the zoning ordinance was written restrictively to spark the public dialogue about new projects, whether industrial or residential. That's what's happening with Railport, he said.

Johnson added he also remains opposed to new industrial plants in St. Gabriel, but Railport is not that kind of project.

"All I can say is, you know, if there is a next time, they have to come have the same conversation," he said. "I mean just because one is passed does not guarantee that another one will be passed." 

Johnson also said that residents living closest to the project support Railport. However, a small sampling of interviews Monday with people in that area, as well as in neighborhoods inside and outside St. Gabriel, indicated several had heard little of the project.

Not everyone was opposed to the idea but seemed to weigh the impact of Railport versus the impact of more housing on drainage and traffic on congested La. 30 and other two-lane roads. 

Lori Stoeckle, 44, a real estate agent who lives with her husband and three sons in University Club Plantation right over the East Baton Rouge Parish line, said a light industrial project might generate less traffic than more homes. 

"We've got too much construction," she said.

Brian Bordelon, who represents the family that owns the property where Railport would be built, made a similar point to the Planning and Zoning Commission last month when the project was brought up for an initial review.

According to an audio recording, he noted the 3,000-acre tract's residential zoning allows four homes per acre, which would translate into 12,000 new homes and about 31,200 new people in a city of 7,500. The 440-acre section where Railport would be built could add 1,800 new homes. He argued the rail yard would have less traffic impact. 

Railport would not have direct access across the Canadian National line to La. 30.

To reach the highway, trucks would have two routes, the project's plans say: River Road to La. 327 to La. 30 near L'Auberge Casino; or River Road to La. 74 to La. 30. Trucks would be barred from using residential Bayou Paul Lane to reach La. 30.

Depending on the time of day, the project is still expected to add between 163 and 190 new daily trips from workers' vehicles and from delivery trucks at peak periods. 

Marie Dorsey, 62, a security guard for a plant outside Iberville Parish, lives just downriver of the proposed rail complex. She said she is skeptical of Railport's job promises based on what's happened for local residents when other industries have come into the area.

She also said she believes the trucks would worsen traffic on La. 30 and even farther upriver in Baton Rouge as truckers try to reach Interstate 10.

Dorsey also questioned how the project would fit with future traffic from any new Mississippi River bridge. Some routes call for a river crossing in the area, dumping that traffic on La. 30, too.

"We'd like to keep things the way they are," she said.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

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