Developer sues parish officialsFeb 16th, 2011 | By Michelle Provencher | Category: top story
Moretco, Inc. – proposer of the controversial Belle Chasse Village Shopping Center – slapped a lawsuit against Plaquemines Parish, naming President Billy Nungesser and each of the parish council members as defendants.
The developer’s request for the 25th Judicial District Court to issue an injunction against the parish is a result of the retroactive moratorium placed on commercial building permits approved by the council at their last meeting, held Jan. 27.
Councilman Keith Hinkley, District 2, introduced the legislation that would stop the construction of any retail establishments in District 2 south of the Industrial Canal, all of District 3, and District 4 north of Russell Drive until Dec. 31, 2011 or the completion of the Master Plan.
While Moretco submitted their application for a permit Jan. 10, and the suit stated “the application was accepted without conditions,” Hinkley amended the moratorium to retroactively begin Jan. 1. The backwards start date rendered Moretco’s permit void despite most of the property being zoned appropriately for the development.
In the lawsuit, Moretco cited the moratorium as a violation of Article I, Section 23 of the Louisiana Constitution, which stated, “[no] law impairing the obligation of contracts shall be enacted.”
Hinkley said stores may still be created, if special approval is granted by the council.
However, Moretco challenges that the council’s conditions – such as traffic impact studies and fees to update public water, sewage and drainage – are too vague, and that the ordinance “did not provide any guidance or instruction” in regards to these requirements.
A series of discussions and revisions between parish officials and the shopping center to be built on the corner of Woodland Highway and Highway 23 in Belle Chasse took place since Dec. 17, 2009 when Moretco claimed their representatives, Jeffrey Moore, creator and CEO, and Thomas McAlister, vice-president of Moretco, first met with Hinkley and Stan Mathes, Director of the Plaquemines Economic Development and Tourism Office, to discuss site plans.
The original format of the complex was going to feature a Winn Dixie grocery store, but most recently swapped the supermarket for a 115,000-square-foot Wal-Mart store.
Other examples of events in the file that Moretco deemed unjust include a town hall meeting on March 1, 2010 at the Belle Chasse Auditorium that was held “for the sole purpose of fostering opposition to the proposed grocery store anchored shopping center.”
“We kept throwing things in front of [Moretco],” said Nungesser. “An access road, a sound wall, everything we could think of, we put in place. I don’t think legally that you can file something after the fact to stop a development. We’ve done everything in our power. The time to do this was two years ago, not after they filed for a permit.”
“A year ago, when they were talking about a Winn Dixie, we put obstacles in place to kill that project,”
Nungesser continued. “Now’s not the time. I just think it’s after the fact. This is not a new project.”
The “obstacles” were requirements for detention ponds, which would delete several of the store fronts from the design, and for the addition of an access road, said Nungesser.
On April 22, 2010, Hinkley introduced – and the council passed – a former moratorium blocking commercial construction in Belle Chasse, but it expired on Dec. 31, 2010. The exhaustion of the first moratorium provided a window in which Moretco could apply for a permit.
While the moratorium was in effect, Hinkley, Nungesser and Mathes met with Moore and McAlister on Oct. 26, 2010 to talk about the new design with a discount department store, and road alterations to alleviate traffic.
“Parish President Nungesser and Councilman Hinkley expressed their support for the development of the Discount Department Store Anchored Shopping Center at the October 26, 2010 meeting,” reads the lawsuit. “Councilman Hinkley expressed concern over the traffic impacting Kenneth Drive and expressed support of the suggested resolution of creating a cul-de-sac at the foot of Kenneth Drive to minimize the traffic impact.”
The document goes on to describe another meeting between Moretco representatives and Hinkley, Nungesser and Mathes on Nov. 30, 2010, where a site plan was presented with the approximately 115,000-square-foot “discount department store” included.
“Parish President Nungesser and Councilman Hinkley both indicated that they would not oppose the development,” reads page six of the petition for an injunction.
The legal document was obtained shortly before press deadline, and Hinkley could not be reached for comment in time.
While the controversy rages on, there will be a public hearing to discuss Hinkley’s amendment to the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance that would limit the size of retail stores in Belle Chasse to 25,000-square-feet. The meeting will be Wed., Feb. 16 at 7 p.m. in the Belle Chasse Civic Auditorium.