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Partners mull their next step

By LAUREN LANGLOIS staffwriter@hammondstar.com

One of the partners behind a proposal to transform Port Manchac into a nature-based destination said the developers feel confident the port's commission has the legal authority to allow the tourism and residential community.

Terry Jones, a principal partner of The Village at Port Manchac LLC, was the guest speaker at the Hammond Rotary Club's luncheon Wednesday, the day after Port Manchac's governing body voted down a memorandum of understanding with the developers and opted to ask the attorney general if the port could have the development in the first place.

He gave a presentation on the developers' vision to transform the 40 acre-port property and 100 acres of privately-owned adjacent wetlands into a destination that emphasizes the surrounding nature and would cost roughly $90 million to build.

Next door to the site they are eyeing, which is off North Pass, is the Joyce Wildlife Management Area, so the development would not have the ability to expand, he said.

The business group has plans for a small residential community that would be the anchor of the resort. Amenities would include a boardwalk, restaurants and retail, a hotel, cabin and RV rentals, a clubhouse with a cove and a marina.

The group describes the Village as an eco-tourism destination that would offer bird watching, wooden boat tours and cypress tree plantings out in Manchac's marsh. Another idea is to rebuild the Manchac lighthouse.

Jones has talked about plans to partner with environmental groups on projects to replenish the sensitive land, but the project has drawn opposition from some environmental groups and the citizen group Save Our Manchac Coalition that believe the development would harm the environment.

The private property, which is owned by Octavia Partners and is being marketed by the port commission under an agreement with the owner, would contain an estimated 100 homes with residential waterways for boating, along with cabin rentals, condiminiums and greenspace. The commercial aspects would be concentrated on the port-owned property, Jones said.

The project hit a snag after the South Tangipahoa Port Commission decided Tuesday to ask the state attorney general to give an opinion on the legality of the proposed project for the port.

Commissioners also rejected the developers' draft memorandum of understanding that would have given them access to the site for more detailed research, such as soil condition reviews, environmental studies, regulatory and review mapping, title reviewing and permitting needed to determine if the project could be done.

Jones said he and his partners, who include Steve Jones, Gary Solomon and international engineering company Stantec, will have to discuss their next step now that the draft MOU has been rejected and the port commission awaits guidance from the attorney general.

The commissioners had discussed the possibility of doing some kind of access agreement that would allow the developers to begin their due diligence work on site while also seeking the legal opinion.

The rejected agreement asked for 18 months, broken into six-month periods. During that time, the port commission would be unable to market the facility. If the research showed the project was feasible, the developers would have been entitled to a lease that could be as long as is allowed under the law.

Andre Coudrain, attorney for the commission, had recommended not agreeing to the MOU "as written" due to various concerns with the document. Instead he recommended seeking the state attorney general opinion on whether the commission has the legal authority to consider this type of project.

The legal question revolves around the statute (RS 34:1953) that lays down the commission's rights and powers, which does not mention residential as a purpose for the port.

Jones said the developers' legal team has done its research and believes the development is allowable. He said the law mentions commercial, recreational and business purposes. Mixed-use developments are typically classified as commercial, he said, and mix-use development is what the Village at Port Manchac LLC has in mind for the port.

Troy Villa, the attorney representing the developers, had argued as much at the port commission meeting. He told commissioners the statute gives the port broad authority to pursue activities that fall under the categories of commercial, recreational and business. He said the hotel, retail and restaurants are clearly commercial/ business and the mixed-use building would be classified commercial too. The residential component would be on the private property and is not subject to the statute, he said.

Coudrain, the port commission's attorney, said more guidance is needed for this unusual proposal that would change the whole property, going from being a public port to a private development.