St. Martin Parish to Pursue Legal Action Against Lafayette
The St. Martin Parish Government may soon file a lawsuit against Lafayette Consolidated Government and other entities involved in removing spoil banks from Vermilion River near Cypress Island.
The St. Martin Parish Council unanimously voted to give parish president Chester Cedars the authority to seek any and all legal remedies against Lafayette Consolidated Government and other parties found to be responsible for the removal of spoil banks along the Vermilion River. According to St. Martin Parish public works officials, crews removed between 800 and 1000 feet of spoil banks from property along the river that LCG recently purchased.
The council's vote also gave Cedars the authority to request public investigations by the Department of Environmental Quality, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other governmental bodies whose regulations may have been violated by the removal of the spoil banks. In addition, Cedars has the council's approval to ask Louisiana's congressional delegation for an inquiry into the matter to find out what happened and how to prevent something like this from happening again.
How Did We Get Here?
The spoil bank removal issue is both environmental and political.
The environmental side of the argument focuses on flood concerns. Lafayette Mayor-President Josh Guillory says the spoil bank removal is necessary to prevent flooding in Lafayette Parish and throughout the Vermilion River watershed. Cedars says the spoil bank removal puts his constituents at risk.
"I'm tired of all the talking points we've heard about the removal the spoil banks," Cedars told the parish council and the more than 100 people gathered in the council chambers. "I'm tired of hearing about (how) the only area that's going to be affected is the Cypress Island Swamp. Those are talking points that I believe are designed to mislead people. We're talking about the Cypress Island community. We're talking about the residents of St. Martin Parish. We're talking about homeowners (and) business owners. We're talking about people that own property and whose lives and live savings are invested in those properties."
The political side of the argument stems from questions of the legality and appropriateness of LCG's actions.
Cedars contends that LCG removed the spoil banks without receiving a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. What's more: Cedars says LCG violated St. Martin Parish law by not receiving the parish government's approval before removing the spoil banks.
"I sent the (Army Corps of Engineers) a copy of an ordinance which we adopted in July of 2021," Cedars told the council, referring to a letter he sent to the Army Corps opposing any permit for the removal of the spoil bank. "That ordinance states that anyone who wants to remove any kind of structure--manmade or not, i. e. a levee or a spoil bank--needed to come before this council with a . . . study to demonstrating no harm would be done to St. Martin Parish and this council would determine whether to grant the permit."
Cedars said he later received word from the Army Corps of Engineers that LCG had withdrawn its request to remove the spoil banks. Cedars also said that LCG officials told him they had received more modeling proving the removal of the spoil banks were necessary. Cedars said he asked for those models, but he never received them.
In fact, Cedars says the next thing he learned was that the spoil banks had been removed. That notice, he says, came around 3 p.m. last Friday.
"The first call we made was to the chief administrative officer of Lafayette Consolidated Government. We left a message; (she) never returned our call. The next call we made was to Jeffery Varisco with the United States Army Corps of Engineers. I was assured for the umpteenth time that a permit was necessary and that no permit was issued. I got a return call from the mayor-president of Lafayette Parish about 5 p.m. that day. It was a very short conversation. 'Did you remove the spoil banks?' There was a hesitation and then a response. 'Yes, I did, but it's good for your people, too," Cedars quoted Guillory as saying.
"I don't need anybody in Lafayette telling me what's good for Lafayette Parish," Cedars continued. "My second response was: 'Why the hell didn't you tell me? Why didn't you pay me the courtesy?'
Cedars said Guillory's response to that question was, "Well I guess I should have. I'm sorry about that."
Cedars added that this episode will put a strain on cooperative efforts between Lafayette and other parishes to solve regional flooding issues.
"What about this idea of regionalized approach to the flooding issue?" Cedars asked. "It takes two to dance. It takes two to cooperate. It takes one to destroy that cooperation. Am I concerned? Yeah."
Here is the audio of Cedars's full 30-minute presentation to the St. Martin Parish Council.
The Land in Question
The land where the spoil banks were located is right across the river from the city of Lafayette and Lafayette Regional Airport. As the crow flies, the parcel is about six miles west-northwest of the Cypress Island Community.
According to maps on the St. Martin Parish Assessor's website, the land is bounded by the river, Oakbourne Subdivision, and the airport to its north and west.
According to documents filed with the St. Martin Parish Clerk of Court's Office, LCG purchased two-thirds of the property on which the spoil banks were located.
Those documents, signed on February 21 and recorded in the clerk's office on the morning of March 9, state that siblings Roy Guilliot, Jr., Paul Guilliot, John Albert Guilliot, and Anita Joyce Guilliot sold their one-third interest in the property to Lafayette Consolidated Government. Blanchet Land Company, LLC, sold the other one-third interest to LCG. According to the documents, the company's agents are P. John Blanchet, III, and David A. Blanchet.
Mayor-President Josh Guillory signed both purchase documents. LCG chief administrative officer Cydra Wingerter and director of international trade Dave Domingue signed as witnesses.
Cypress Island Residents Concerned
The residents in attendance at Tuesday night's meeting were all concerned that LCG's removal of the spoil banks will cause their homes to flood during a major rain event.
Yvonne and Darcy Romero said they live about a mile from Lake Martin. They say their property didn't flood during the August 2016 deluge because of the spoil banks.
"We had an inch of water maybe 40 feet east of our house, but that's as high as it got," Darcy said. "The other side of the road flooded quite a bit."
"This changes everything," Yvonne said. "With a 12-foot levee (or) spoil bank, St. Martin Parish flooded. If the banks are only six feet now, a 10-inch rain will bring flooding. You're talking about the Cypress Island Swamp. That's along the Vermilion River. This is going to affect everyone from the Vermilion River to the Bayou Teche. As the crow flies, that's about 20 miles. That's all of St. Martin Parish. That's all going to be flooded."
Yvonne Romero said she's worried insurance rates for residents in Cypress Island will increase now that the spoil banks are gone. She says she's grateful the parish will pursue legal action against LCG.
"Thank goodness for Mr. Chester Cedars. With his leadership, his support, (and) his expertise, we may have a fighting chance."
What Is LCG Saying?
“I am excited that we were able to help both parishes in the region with this spoil bank removal project,” Lafayette Mayor-President Josh Guillory said in a statement. “Unfortunately, it has come to my attention that the St. Martin Parish Council has given authorization to take legal action related to this matter. In order to successfully sue for damages in a plaintiff’s case, you must show that there was harm created. I trust the significant engineering that has gone into this project. The current modeling of the spoil bank removal project shows that there is no threat of harm to St. Martin Parish.
“I trust that my fellow elected officials in St. Martin Parish want for their constituents the same thing that I want for mine, which is to do all we can to protect life and property. I also trust in the science and all of the engineers who have spent years analyzing the benefits of restoring the natural hydraulic flow in this area. I look forward to continuing our work with all of our neighbors, including St. Martin Parish, to combat flooding on a regional scale. This is a great day for our region.”
In the same statement, Guillory reiterated the claim that this project will not harm St. Martin Parish residents.
“In summary, modeling of LCG’s spoil bank removal project shows no harm to St. Martin Parish when modeled for a 10- and 100- year flood event,” Guillory said in the statement. “Future modeling of our comprehensive stormwater management plan shows the LCG spoil bank removal project coupled with the many detention and conveyance projects conducted by LCG over the last two years and planned for the future, will provide even greater benefit to not only Lafayette Parish, but to St. Martin Parish as well, in a 10- and 100- year flood event.”
The full press release responding to last night's vote is below.