Wetlands group tries courts again

Lakeshore plan called bad for environment

Tuesday, June 08, 2004
By Paul Bartels
St. Tammany bureau

Save Our Wetlands of Louisiana has been maneuvering unsuccessfully in and out of the courts for more than a decade to try to preserve as public wetlands and then to block development of more than 2,900 acres along and near Lake Pontchartrain south of Slidell.

Now, with lawsuits last week against the Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, the 30-year-old organization is taking what's expected to be its last legal stand against an upscale residential, recreational and commercial project.

The environmental group sued DEQ on Friday in state court in Baton Rouge after filing a similar suit a few days earlier against the New Orleans district commander of the Corps of Engineers in federal court.

The suits arose from the May 7 approval of permits for the project by the corps, DEQ and the state Department of Natural Resources.

Both suits insist the planned 25-year buildout of new Lakeshore Estates and Lakeshore Village planned unit developments to go with the existing Lakeshore Estates subdivision will degrade water quality, endanger valuable marine and wildlife habitats and increase flooding.

Among other things, the suit in state court seeks a preliminary injunction -- and eventual voiding of the water quality permit -- on grounds that certification was "arbitrary and capricious" and "manifestly erroneous" in view of substantial evidence on the record.

On Thursday night, the St. Tammany Parish Council upheld the parish Zoning Commission's various rezonings and planned unit development changes for the buildout phase over the objections of Save Our Wetlands of Louisiana, or SOWL, and some Pirates Harbor residents living near the project.

SOWL's executive attorney, Luke Fontana, said Monday that an appeal in state court in Covington of the commission and council's actions on the planned unit development changes likely will be filed soon.

Other than challenging the council's Thursday decision, Fontana said, "SOWL has no other avenues except the two lawsuits . . . and a loss of both suits will probably be the end of it until the next hurricane blows it all down."

Tammany Holding President Bob Torres said Monday that he couldn't understand what Fontana's group is trying to accomplish.

Torres said the group loses every time it goes to court and costs the taxpayers and private businesses money -- unnecessarily, in his view. And the issue of whether the area he bought in 1996 would be developed has long since been settled, he said.

The Corps and DEQ have declined to comment on the latest suits.

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Paul Bartels can be reached at
pbartels@timespicayune.com or (985) 645-2854



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