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Land value dispute delays levee project near New Orleans

December 2, 2021 GMT

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Construction on a long-planned levee in southeastern Louisiana has been delayed at least a month because of a dispute over land to complete the project.

The West Shore Lake Pontchartrain Hurricane Levee is designed to protect St. John the Baptist, St. Charles and St. James parishes from storm surges such as those that devastated their east banks during Hurricane Ida.

The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate reported the dispute is over the value of 364 acres (147 hectares) owned by Nature Land Co. LLC, a company with partners that include a former judge and a New Orleans lawyer and real estate developer.

The Pontchartrain Levee District and Louisiana officials negotiated for two years with Nature Land.

During spring and summer of this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requested access to the land to build temporary roads to work sites. The Corps is in charge of contracts to build the $760 million levee system that is 18.5 miles (30 kilometers) long.

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Without a land title, the levee district went to court in early November to expropriate the land for $492,800, the value set by appraisers hired by the levee district and state.

Nature Land says it has not determined a price for its property and does not want to rush through an involuntary taking process.

In April, the company filed its own lawsuit arguing that Louisiana’s expropriation laws should be declared unconstitutional. Nature Land’s controlling partner is Thomas Kliebert Jr. of Paulina, a former judge. New Orleans lawyer and developer John Cummings III is also a partner.

The litigation and construction delay have delayed the 50-year effort to build the West Shore levee.

“Any delay is unfortunate, and obviously these access roads are needed,” St. John Parish President Jaclyn Hotard said Wednesday. “It’s unfortunate, given what the residents of St. John have just gone through.”

In its suit, Nature Land said that even if it granted an easement to the levee district to use its property, half the land would not be reachable when the levee is finished. The other half, outside the levee, would lose value as a location for future pipelines, the company said. That potential pipeline revenue and recreational use of the land represent the company’s value, the lawsuit said.

The Nature Land suit also challenges a state law that let levee agencies, the state and the Corps of Engineers expropriate property that’s not by rivers and streams. That change was made after Hurricane Katrina to assure quick access to land to expand and rebuild the New Orleans-area levees and flood walls.

On Nov. 24, Judge Vercell Fiffie in St. John Parish denied the levee district’s request for immediate expropriation of the land. He ordered a Dec. 17 hearing on the expropriation request and Nature Land’s lawsuit.