Sen. Reggie Dupre leans in close, waving his finger over the aide's notebook: "Tell them we want a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would allow the state to take private land for hurricane protection projects, and we pay only fair market value for it."
It's a bold suggestion, something that hasn't been mentioned in the numerous press conferences about consolidating the state's levee boards, next month's special session or even hurricane recovery. But the issue is not foreign to those in the trade.
Back in the committee room, Steve Wilson, president of the Pontchartrain Levee District, sits quietly listening to a PowerPoint presentation with his fingers locked behind his head. Although he's not directly involved with the planning process going on in the hallway, he understands why the concept is being floated.
A few years ago, his district was building a hurricane levee through the wetlands of St. Charles Parish. Everything was moving along as planned until a right-of-way was encountered. In order to proceed, the levee district paid Airline Lands, which is owned by the Monteleone family of New Orleans, the fair market value of $66,000.
But the Monteleone family had obviously read the Louisiana Constitution following the buyout ' it contains what might be the most liberal definition for land values in the nation. As such, the family took the levee district to court, arguing the land could have been commercially developed in the future. In the end, they won a whopping $7.2 million judgment, based on the potential value of the land, rather than its fair market value.
Referred to as "full extent of loss," such an argument is allowed under the state's charter, and some officials fear the legal language could hold up hurricane protection projects for years. This is even more important today, as Louisiana stands on the cusp of rebuilding. "If this keeps happening, then a lot of projects won't even be affordable enough to build," Wilson says.
That's why Dupre, a Terrebonne Parish Democrat, is leading the charge to change the constitution to allow the state to take private land for hurricane protection projects and pay the owner only fair market value and nothing else, "even if they think they can build three malls on the land in the future," he says.
With 61 percent of Louisiana voters in favor, a similar constitutional amendment was adopted in 2003. The provision, which is still in practice today, permits the state to pay only fair market value for land it seizes or damages in connection with a costal restoration project.
The 1991 Caernarvon Freshwater Diversion Project that devastated several acres of oyster leases in Breton Sound largely prompted the amendment. The resulting $2 billion legal judgment made national headlines before it was thrown out by the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Even though they were paying the state only $2 per acre for their oyster leases, fishermen were able to convince a state district judge the leases would have paid out substantially more over the coming years if they had not been damaged.
The 2003 amendment sailed through the Legislature with very few hiccups, especially since it limited the geographic area where the seizures could take place. But it also received stiff criticism from those opposed to its quasi-retroactive language, meaning it could be applied to future as well as pending suits.
Dupre, who has been involved with most of the constitutional amendments related to natural protections over the past five years, says he would base his new proposal on the 2003 model ' only this time, it would apply to hurricane protection projects, such as levees, seawalls and floodgates.
In short, the proposal could translate into fewer dollars than ever for landowners standing in the way of hurricane protection projects. But in practice, the measure would merely alter the way courts are allowed to interpret the value of such land.
Newman Trowbridge Jr., a Lafayette-based attorney and general counsel to the Louisiana Landowners Association, a group that mostly represents marsh, timber and agricultural interests, says a change like this would force private landowners to shoulder the cost of a public project.
But more important, he says the proposed amendment would rob many people of their livelihoods and futures.
"This is a major concern," Trowbridge says of the proposal, which is still in its conceptual stage. "Hurricane protection levees are often placed in areas that are economically developable. In a lot of instances, this is very valuable land that could be income-producing for the owner."
Dupre admits it will be a hard sell, but he does have an increasing wave of public sympathy on his side, as hurricane protection has become a major policy issue. A petition was filed to recall the governor for the way she responded to Hurricane Katrina, and several public demonstrations have been held supporting Category 5 levee systems and the consolidation of levee districts.
Still, the public outcry regarding the coming land seizures has been minimal.
"This is the issue that isn't being talked about," Dupre says, adding the tide will soon turn.
Residents of south Louisiana have known for months that the taking of land will be necessary for rebuilding to progress, but only recently have there been signs of such a trend. Indeed, private property rights are shaping up as one of the most explosive issues in post-Katrina Louisiana.
Some private land ' no one knows how much ' undoubtedly will need to be taken by the government for any long-term plan to proceed.
A recent report issued by the Crescent City Redevelopment Corporation, which was created by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, estimates it will cost nearly $17 billion to rebuild the city, of which $12 billion will be dedicated to buyouts.
A "last resort" measure in the report calls for the corporation to use eminent domain to seize some property. Eminent domain is the legal doctrine that allows governments to take private property for certain public uses that are supposed to serve the greater public good. According to a recent Supreme Court decision, those uses can include economic development that ultimately will yield higher property taxes.
On the congressional level, many are waiting to see if a buyout bill by U.S. Rep. Richard Baker, a Baton Rouge Republican, will be resurrected in coming months. Baker's bill, which was stalled late last year, would pay homeowners no less than 60 percent of the equity they have in their homes and force mortgage holders to settle for 60 percent of that balance. If such a measure passes, it would become a major player in future buyout plans for Louisiana.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has also gotten into the mix. It announced last year that it wants to obtain huge swaths of land ' some pieces spanning more than 150 feet ' along the 17th Street and London Avenue canals for levee improvements. In Plaquemines Parish, the feds are considering seizing portions of land from 250 property owners to widen the Mississippi River.
Such takings are not supposed to be an easy grab for the feds. Initial reports suggest ' and the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires ' that property owners be compensated justly. Some parish officials are going public with their fears and expressing concern that purchase prices could drop below pre-Katrina fair market value.
As for the proposed constitutional amendment, it's flying below the radar for now as state officials circle their wagons and prepare for policy battle. Everyone involved agrees it will be a challenge, but it may also be the only way to carry on with significant hurricane protection projects in the future.
"This is an unspoken issue that nobody wants to deal with," Dupre says.
Local and state agents Thursday night raided The Keg, the popular college bar located in the area known as The Strip, leading to the (at least) temporary closure of the venue.
Here's your daily look at late-breaking national and international news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Friday, April 18, 2014:
Friday's Blogs from the Bog!
Time and time again, the Lafayette Parish School Board shows an overwhelming tendency toward idiocy, but Wednesday night’s contentious discussion over Northside High School’s teen mother program tops the list of dumb discussions.
“The accomplishment of this goal within the next ten years is not only critical for the region to effectively compete with other regions for residents and businesses, but also to provide an amenity for everyone in Acadiana to enjoy.”
Education Superintendent John White says a continued push to try to keep Louisiana from using tests associated with the Common Core education standards are creating "a state of chaos" for public school teachers.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's plan to use $210 million in surplus and one-time money to help balance next year's budget received the backing Thursday of the State Bond Commission, support that was needed for the maneuver to work.
State wildlife and fisheries agents have arrested a 39-year-old man accused of stealing crawfish.
An East Feliciana Parish lawmaker has jettisoned his proposal to make it harder for a condemned prisoner to appeal a death sentence.
Senators advanced a proposal Wednesday that would let the governor remove New Orleans-area levee board members for violating what he considers to be public policy, despite concerns it would introduce political meddling into state flood protection.
The Lafayette City-Parish Council on Tuesday will vote on a resolution that if approved would clear the way for a December ballot proposition asking voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax parishwide to help fund the construction of a new terminal at Lafayette Regional Airport.
Just days before the fourth anniversary of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster and oil spill, the Coast Guard has moved cleanup of Louisiana's coast to a new phase, allowing BP to end its "active" efforts in the area.
Legislators still must leave their guns at the door of the Louisiana Capitol.
Sen. Fred Mills may have an "R" behind his name, but his actions in the Louisiana Legislature transcend the established boundaries of his party.
The Louisiana House overwhelmingly rejected a repeal of the state's unconstitutional anti-sodomy law Tuesday.
The Louisiana Senate sided with Gov. Bobby Jindal and the oil industry Tuesday, agreeing to void a lawsuit that a south Louisiana flood board filed against more than 90 oil and gas companies for coastal damage.
Acadian rep notifies would-be supporters that an April 25 fundraiser for the embattled U.S. rep won’t go on as planned.
While it isn’t all too unusual for public bodies to have hired security present during meetings, the LPSB’s push to do so is arguably a response to the antics of one board member.
“I’m running. Why would I be raising all this money? Just to have to return it to people?”
With incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu watching from afar, and with a united Democratic Party in her corner, the fight to get the GOP officially behind Congressman Bill Cassidy is gaining just as much momentum as it is hushed controversy.
15th Judicial District Judge Durwood Conque has announced that he will not seek re-election after 27 years on the bench.
The controversial standardized tests are set to be used in third-grade through eighth-grade public school classrooms next year.
The Louisiana Senate has agreed to prohibit unmanned aircraft from flying over chemical plants, water treatment systems, telecommunications networks and other items considered "critical infrastructure" in Louisiana.
It didn’t take long for KATC TV 3 to jump all over the news of a dead body found in Girard Park, but in its rush to produce headlines, the local TV station got sloppy.
An unholy trinity of civil-society upheavalers whose first names are not Conner, Tanner or Logan are facing charges in Eunice.