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Lawsuit over $479M grain terminal in St. John to continue after court denies company's appeal

wallace grain elevator
Halle Parker
/
WWNO
A sign opposing a proposed grain elevator in Wallace sits in front of Fee-Fo-Lay Cafe, a coffee shop owned by the founders of the Descendants Project, on Thursday, April 21, 2022.

A lawsuit looking to block the construction of a $479 million grain elevator on St. John the Baptist Parish’s west bank will move forward after a three-judge panel denied an appeal by the company behind the project.

The Descendants Project, a local nonprofit aiming to bolster the lives of residents descended from slaves, sued the parish over the three-decades-old rezoning of a large agricultural plot from residential to industrial use near the small, Black community of Wallace.

The change occurred as part of a bid by former St. John Parish president Lester Millet to coax the Taiwan-based company Formosa Plastics Group to the area and profit off the deal. He ultimately served nearly five years in prison, but the zoning change remained in place.

The 248-acre site at the center of the case would host Greenfield Louisiana, LLC’s proposed grain export terminal if the industrial zoning designation is upheld. In its lawsuit, the Descendants Project argues that the zoning should be rendered null and void due to the corruption surrounding its passage, as well as conflicts with other local zoning regulations and missteps in procedure.

aerial wallace, louisiana
Brian Davis
/
Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation
A drone captures an aerial view of a predominantly Black neighborhood in Wallace, Louisiana and the neighboring farmland slated for industrial development by an agricultural company.

In late April, Louisiana District Court Judge J. Sterling Snowdy said the lawsuit could proceed to trial, denying all exceptions filed by Greenfield and St. John Parish. The company tried to appeal the decision, arguing that Snowdy erred in his judgment.

But Judges Susan M. Chehardy, Stephen J. Windhorst and Hans J. Liljeberg upheld Snowdy’s decision in a detailed response to Greenfield’s petition on June 29 — though notices weren’t sent out until Monday.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals panel found that the plaintiffs’ case had a legitimate cause and right to sue. The court also found that if The Descendants Project can prove the zoning ordinance is in effect “no law” — or illicit and unlawful from the start – then it wouldn’t be subject to prescription, which is the legal limit to when a party can bring action.

“It's a greenlight to proceed, and we are very much looking forward to getting back into court to get a final ruling,” said Pam Spees, a Center for Constitutional Rights attorney and part of the team representing the Descendants Project.

She called Greenfield’s attempt to appeal Snowdy’s decision unusual because it’s not a final judgment.

“It is significant that the appellate court denied Greenfield's request to review the decision — and even more so that it issued a written opinion solidly supporting Judge Snowdy's analysis and ruling that the Descendants Project has stated a valid claim that the ordinance is absolutely null,” Spees added.

A Greenfield spokesperson called the decision "procedural."

"We will continue working with the St John the Baptist Parish community to bring good paying green jobs and economic revival to the West Bank," said the spokesperson in a statement. "We look forward to the ultimate dismissal of the plaintiffs' case when the facts are heard.”

The appeals court’s validation doesn’t mean the case will succeed; it just means the case’s arguments have legal standing. The merits of the lawsuit will be argued and determined during the trial, and for now, no court dates have been set.

Spees said they’re also waiting for the company to respond to their requests for more information through discovery, but she said “they’ve refused to answer.”

graphic rendering of grain elevator st john parish
A graphic rendering of the grain elevator and dock planned in Wallace, La. from the Port of South Louisiana and Greenfield Louisiana's 2022 Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity grant application with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

News of the ruling comes after the recent release of two reports looking at parts of the 54-silo, 275-foot grain elevator’s potential economic impact on the parish if it moves forward.

One report by Together Louisiana found that the parish could miss out on more than $200 million in property tax revenue from the facility due to a tax deal struck by the Port of South Louisiana, St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff’s Office and Greenfield in April.

The agreement locked the company into lower PILOTs — or annual payments in lieu of taxes — for 30 years, despite a lack of input from the parish government and school board in negotiations with Greenfield, according to minutes from an April 6 special meeting. Instead of sending about $7 million worth of ad valorem taxes to the coffers each year, the company would pay $2 million most years.

And that’s a “conservative estimate,” argued Erin Hansen, the analyst who authored the report. The facility’s value would likely increase with more investments and inflation, but Hansen kept the annual tax contribution stable over the lengthy 30-year period.

Proponents of the project said they were willing to pay that price to bring the industrial boost to St. John’s declining west bank and pointed to a recent report by Greater New Orleans, Inc. based on the company’s numbers. The report projected that Greenfield’s terminal could result in the addition of 271 more jobs in the area, in addition to the 100 people hired by the company itself. Those indirect or induced jobs could come in the form of developments like new gas stations or more staff needed at local restaurants, according to the report.

Supporters argue those jobs are needed in areas like Edgard, the mostly Black community that neighbors Wallace and has lost about 600 residents since 2010. Greenfield representative Reggie Ross, a local doctor who grew up in Edgard, said he hoped more jobs would mean more people moving into the rural area. The GNO Inc. report also estimated that the project would directly contribute $6.4 million in state and local taxes annually once operating, not including the PILOT.

But it's the Wallace residents who would live closest to the massive grain elevator and who fear for a lower quality of life and are already burdened by industrial plants across the river. The Descendants Project’s founders Jo and Joy Banner have also argued the plant could disrupt cultural sites remaining from when their ancestors toiled on the site.

Greenfield has stated their “state of the art” facility would be the cleanest grain terminal in North America, and that a survey conducted on the site found no evidence of heritage sites. However, that survey has been deemed “insufficient” by the Army Corps of Engineers and is under increased scrutiny.

NOTE: This story has been updated with a response from a Greenfield spokesperson.

Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk.