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Port board rejects agreement

Photos by Lauren Langlois

ATTENTIVE CROWD -- The crowd at Ponchatoula City Hall listens to discussion over whether to allow a group of developers the option to study Port Manchac to see if it can be transformed into a commercial and residential development. The port's governing body on Tuesday voted down a memorandum of agreement drafted by the Village at Port Manchac LLC.

By LAUREN LANGLOIS

staffwriter@hammondstar.com

Port Manchac's board rejected on Tuesday an agreement that would have given developers 18 months of access to the port for studying if the industrial facility could be transformed into a tourism destination and residential community in the marshland.

The board made the decision during its meeting Tuesday at Ponchatoula City Hall. A large audience was present for the meeting.

South Tangipahoa Parish Port Commission will seek a state attorney general's opinion to learn if it has the legal authority to accept the project. The body's attorney, Andre Coudrain, recommended getting the guidance, explaining the statute establishing the body's powers and rights does not mention residential as a purpose for leasing property.

He said the port's primary mission is "for port, recreational, harbor and terminal purposes," according to the statute, and this development does not seem to relate to that mission.

"It's a transformation of this property from a public port to basically a private development," he said.

Before the commission signs the presented agreement, he said the body should get clarity on whether this kind of project is allowed at the port under the law.

"If there is an interest in exploring the possibility of an agreement with this developer, you first need to answer the question of whether you've got the statutorily authority to do it," he said.

Commissioners unanimously voted down the memorandum of understanding the developers had drafted, which would have limited the port commission's ability to market the site to prospective companies during the 18 months while the group of developers conducted research to see if the project is feasible. The first six months of the 18 months would include reviewing soil conditions and beginning the environmental investigation. In exchange the port commission would have gotten nominal fees amounting to $10,000.

The agreement would also have given developers the exclusive option to elect to lease the property for the longest period allowed by law with a fair market rental value.

With the draft agreement rejected, developers could return to the commission with another request that would lay out terms for having access to the site for their due diligence research. Commissioners discussed giving the developers access to begin their research, while the commission simultaneously seeks the attorney general opinion. Coudrain said he would provide any input to the developers needed to form that access agreement, negotiating those terms with them.

Parish President Robby Miller, who favored approving the agreement and was disappointed by the decision Tuesday, said he believes the law allows the commission to make all decisions on the operations at the port.

"As a matter of fact, the Port of New Orleans has made many of these same decisions over the years to make the port productive. The idea of allowing the Village at Port Manchac to have an option would provide the final answers to everyone's questions and then a well-informed decision could be made," Miller said.

The people behind the Village at Port Manchac LLC have proposed turning the port's 40 acres and 100 acres of privately-owned adjacent wetlands into a mix-use waterfront development. The port commission has a cooperative endeavor agreement with the private property owner, Octavia Partners, to market the 100 acres for economic development opportunities.

The attorney general's opinion would look only at the port's 40-acre property and not the private land, which is a separate matter. Under the now-rejected memorandum of understanding, the port would have agreed to work with developers in obtaining the benefits of the cooperative endeavor agreement with Octavia Partners or similar rights to further the project.

Terry Jones, one of the three principals of the Village at Port Manchac LLC, explained the port's property would be the "commercial center" of the village featuring a boardwalk, restaurants, marina, clubhouse, retail and other amenities. The Octavia land would have the residential component, with an estimated 100 single-family homes, cabin rentals and condiminiums, he said.

Commission Vice President Don Boihem and Commissioner Ernest Drake voted against seeking an opinion while President Daryl Ferrara and Commissioners Cheryl Brumfield, Bill Joubert and James Daniels were in favor of asking for the attorney general to weigh in.

Boihem said an attorney general's opinion would not resolve the legal conundrum as it is not binding. He is against the project in general, saying he joined the volunteer commission to improve Port Manchac and pursue traditional port business.

"It was to handle cargo by interstate, by rail and by barge. I didn't get on board to build a hotel, an ice cream parlor and things like that," he said.

Developers have insisted the project would be an environmentally friendly development with low-impact, sustainable construction. However, talk of celebrating and conserving the marsh and the culture of Manchac from developers has not convinced the citizens group Save Our Manchac Coalition.

The group's president, Kim Coates, spoke out against the project. She said the coalition has gathered more than 1,100 signatures online and another few hundred signatures in person from people opposed to the development.

Coalition member and retired ecologist Ed Bodker, who worked for the state transportation department, said the development would damage the marsh by cutting into it with artificial canals. Representatives of environmental groups emphasized the importance of preserving the fragile wetlands. Groups in attendance included Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, Nature Conservancy in Louisiana, the Gulf Restoration Network and the Audubon Society.

Residents opposed to the project said they worried the quiet, small community would no longer be a tranquil place to live. One resident who lives on Owl Bayou said allowing this development would make flooding worse for neighboring properties that already face disappearing land.

The consultant for the commission, Gary LaGrange, spoke against the project. He is the retired president of the Port of New Orleans. He said Port Manchac is uniquely well situated as a site for transporting cargo, having access to water, railroad and the interstate. He said putting commercial developments on the site would be a waste and news of the Village project has scared away prospective business considering the port, though he did not name any specific business that is considering Port Manchac.

Ginger Cangelosi, director of the Tangipahoa Economic Development Foundation, told the commission the foundation is in support of allowing the developers to do their due diligence work and the entity is not the only supporters either. She said Greater Hammond Chamber of Commerce and Tangi Tourism supported letting the developers move forward with their research. The developers have also gotten positive feedback from parish council members, she said.

DOTD: No concerns about authority

A letter from Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development to Port Director Pat Dufresne dated Tuesday states the department has not found anything in regulations and laws that would suggest the commission does not have authority to vote on the Village at Port Manchac project.

Thomas Clark, commissioner of the Office of Multimodal Commerce with the DOTD, wrote that the state department has reviewed the regulations and laws that govern the port commision and has found nothing that raises any concerns regarding the commission's authority to vote on the project.

He also wrote that there is a reimbursement clause associated with the DOTD Port Priority Program Funds that the commission has used to make port improvements. But the reimbursement clause only applies when the port commission decides to sell or dispose of any property that has been improved with the funds. Currently, there is about $2.86 million that has the potential for reimbursement. If the assets of the port are leased or used under an agreement that has the commission as the owner still, the reimbursement clause would not apply, he wrote.

The letter goes on to say that other ports have sought non-traditional ways to make revenue.

"We are aware of other ports that have realized revenue potential through diversifaction of port-owned properties for non-traditional purposes, i.e. Port of New Orleans and Port of Lake Charles. DOTD encourages the port to look towards those non-traditional uses as guidance as it seeks to distinguish itself in the port community," he wrote.

The letter from DOTD was not discussed at the port commission meeting Tuesday, when members decided to seek the state attorney general's opinion on whether it has the legal authority to consider The Village at Port Manchac.

However, a letter from the Canadian National Railway was read aloud. It stated the port serves a vital role for the railway in its operations and it expressed concern about the project. It pointed out the port's entrance crosses the railroad tracks, which could create a dangerous scenario for the Village's residents and visitors.