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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

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Court rulings costly to Levee District

Court rulings costly to Levee District

Two recent court rulings in favor of landowners over the appropriation of their land by the South Lafourche Levee District have SLLD wondering how they will proceed with future levee work.

In October, Judge John E. Leblanc ruled in a class action suit that the taking of land from the owners of over 350 tracts in the 10th Ward for the purpose of levee improvement was done without giving them “fair value” for their property.

Also in October, Judge Jerome Barbera ruled that not only did SLLD pay one owner too little for his appropriated land, but it also owed him for the value of the material taken since it caused him to lose profit in his business.

These legal proceedings (and others which are ongoing) started in January 2011 when SLLD passed a resolution to appropriate 2-300 feet of property from landowners along Hwy. 3235 from Golden Meadow to Cut Off at the back of their tracts near the borrow canal.

It amounted to about 174.796 total acres of land.

From that taking, SLLD mined 1.6 million cubic yards of dirt, using it to raise 10 miles of nearby levee by 2-3 feet.

Landowners were compensated by SLLD based on the district’s assessment of what it considered the “realistic” value of the land.

Landowners and their attorneys argued that the property valuation method SLLD used to pay them for the land taken, the “dividing” method, was not fair.

Prior to appropriation, assessors for SLLD determined that the portions taken should not be assessed at “per acre value” because there were no utilities and no access to the front of the tracts.

They also used sales of front portions along the highway which were much higher than the “per acre value”, subtracted that amount from the whole value of a tract, divided the remainder and then came up with a value.

Assuming that the back portions of the tracts were worth less, the board categorized them as “cleared” or “uncleared” pastureland and assigned what they called a “realistic” value between $1500 and $2000 per acre. SLLD actually figured the value at the time of only the part taken from each tract independent of the entire tract.

The “per acre” value takes the entire tract and values the part taken as a percentage of the entire tract. If a 10-acre tract is worth $100,000 and 1 acre is taken, that acre is worth $10,000.

The judges ruled that the “per acre” rather than the “dividing” method was the correct way to value the property.
The judges cited SLLD’s failure to compensate landowners fairly and ruled that SLLD should pay about $10,000 to $13,000 per acre.

“We respect the decision of the courts although we don’t agree,” said SLLD General Manager Windell Curole, voicing the disappointment of the entire board.

Based on the judge’s decision in the class action suit, the levee district must pay over $1.5 million more to the owners of the appropriated tracts.

In the other case, the judge’s ruling included payment to the landowner for the value of the dirt because the owner was in the dirt selling business before the appropriation took place and the taking of his land caused a loss of profit.

Judge Barbera awarded Jarreau $11,869 for his 0.913 acre of land and nearly $170,000 for the dirt taken.

When asked how they felt about the judgment, Penny Jarreau, wife of Chad Jarreau, who owns Bayou Construction & Trucking, said: “Now that it’s over with, everybody has to do what’s right, not what you feel is right. Experts told us exactly what our land was worth. The judge sided with us for a reason. Justice was done and I feel blessed.”

And to people who would say that an acre of land at the foot of the borrow canal is not worth the $10 to $13,000 price tag, Jarreau says those people are misinformed.

“Those people don’t know what they’re talking about. We are in the dirt business. We bought that land to sell the dirt and they were taking away our livelihood and nobody really seemed to care,” said Jarreau.

Members of the class action suit, through their attorney, declined any comment.

So, what is “fair”?

State law requires that all lands taken, used, damaged or destroyed for levee or levee drainage purposes shall be paid for at “fair market value” at the time they were taken.

But if these rulings stand, the future costs of building or improving levees in Lafourche or any other parish in south Louisiana may be too expensive to undertake.

How does the public’s desire to protect itself from flooding weigh against the right of the landowner to be fairly compensated for his loss of property?

SLLD is considering an appeal to these judgments. Maybe a “fair” compromise can be reached.