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Louisiana Levee to continue after court orders land seizure

December 21, 2021 GMT

NEW ORLEANS, La. (AP) — A three-judge panel of Louisiana’s 5th Circuit Court of Appeal has ordered a St. John the Baptist Parish judge to allow the seizure of a tract of private land to build portions of the West Shore Lake Pontchartrain Hurricane Levee.

The order will allow construction on the 18.5-mile (30-kilometer) levee system to continue, according to The Advocate. The project is projected to cost $760 million and intended to protect St. John the Baptist, St. Charles and St. James parishes from storm surges similar to ones that accompanied Hurricane Ida this year and Hurricane Isaac in 2012.

The panel ruled that 40th Judicial District Court Judge Vercell Fiffie went against state law by not approving the district’s request and in trying to combine the levee district’s expropriation request with a lawsuit that had challenged the expropriation process.

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In the appeal filed earlier this month, the levee district said Fiffie was required by state law to grant their request to expropriate 364 acres (147 hectares) in exchange for $492,800. The land is owned by Nature Land Co. LLC, a company owned by a former judge and a prominent New Orleans lawyer and developer. Nature Land Co. had sued the district to halt the expropriation of the property.

In the ruling, the judged said the levee district had followed state law to give money to the court that is equal to the the property’s value, which is determined by appraisers hired by the district.

The district argued that state law requires judges to sign expropriation orders that allow construction on the property, which also preserving the landowners’ rights to challenge the value of the land in additional legal proceedings after the property has been seized.

The law does not give the judge the power to consider whether two parties are working in good-faith negotiations over the land purchase before approving expropriation, the district argued.

According to The Advocate, the district hand-delivered its initial purchase offer, based on the highest of two appraisals, on Sept. 24 and received no response. It then made a final written offer on Oct. 12 and again received no response before filing the request to seize the land.

The property owned by Nature Land includes areas that will be used for two access roads and for part of the levee. According to The Advocate, Nature Land’s controlling partner is Thomas Kliebert Jr., of Paulina, a former judge of the 23rd Judicial District Court. New Orleans lawyer and developer John Cummings III is also a partner.

Nature Land’s attorneys did not respond to The Advocate’s request for comment. A spokesperson for the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which acts as the official sponsor for the project, said officials in the district were still reviewing the order.

The levee district said in its request to the 5th Circuit that is it does not gain control of the property by Dec. 23, it will have to renegotiate or rebid contracts that have already been awarded. This could delay the construction further and drive up costs.

The 5th Circuit judges ordered Fiffie to issue the expropriation before Dec. 23.