Lakeshore Estates draws environmental concerns



Foes fear effect of expansion

Tuesday January 27, 2004
By Paul Bartels
St. Tammany bureau

Glynn Brock Jr., a diesel mechanic and commercial shrimper, has fished Lake Pontchartrain and the waterways draining into it below Slidell for most of his 62 years.

"I've fished in every body of water around here that's deep enough to sink a hook in," he says.

Standing on the small deck of his Pirates Harbor home wedged between lower Louisiana 433 and the narrow East Diversion Canal, Brock lights a cigarette and gestures toward the coastal plain as it slowly darkens in the fading light of dusk.

Until the mid-1960s, when major residential development along and near the lake first got under way, the vast marshy area now lying between U.S. 11 South and Louisiana 433 "was all once underwater, part of the lake," he said. Before the large-scale developers came, many local commercial fishers and trappers made all or part of their living in that area of southeast St. Tammany Parish, said Brock, who has lived on 433 since 1990.

Neighbor Wayne Frady, who has lived on lower 433 since 1958, agrees. "It was probably the best nursery area for marine species and waterfowl wintering, surrounding the lake," he said. "It was not wetlands. It was open water lagoons."

But shrimp became scarce and crabs scarcer as development boomed. First came Eden Isles, then Oak Harbor Estates and, finally, Lakeshore Estates.

Now, Brock, Frady and others fear the worst is yet to come for them and the fisheries.

On the distant western horizon can be seen the boom of a "walking dredge" used to dig out the maze of waterways in Lakeshore Estates. One day, that newest development may be almost literally at their back door.

Development of the first phase, about 850 acres taken up primarily by the subdivision along and near the lake, got under way in 1998 after years of environmental controversy. Now, Tammany Holding Corp. President Robert Torres is ready to get to work on the 1,600-acre expansion.

The second-phase would embody two large residential developments, Lakeshore Village and an expanded Lakeshore Estates, generally north and east of the existing Lakeshore Estates between Interstate 10 and Louisiana 433.

The existing and future development is intended to provide a virtually self-contained community of different types of tony residences, a marina, shopping center, hotel and other businesses.

Preliminary applications were submitted in September 2002 and finalized last July. They're still under review by various agencies. The key ones are the state departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Quality and the Army Corps of Engineers. Each agency has veto power, and none has yet approved a permit.

About 650 acres are what the corps calls "jurisdictional wetlands," described as mostly pasture and non-tidal marsh. About 34.5 acres of habitat essential to red drum and shrimp would be altered or possibly destroyed. So might 6.7 acres of fringe wetlands along the canal.

Brock, a handful of other Pirates Harbor residents and the group Save Our Wetlands are especially concerned about the digging of a deeper and much wider -- 230 to 250 feet wide -- East Diversion Canal to replace the one running from below Schneider Canal to Salt Bayou.

They fear that work alone will increase the flood threat from tidal surge during storms, weaken the soil base supporting their homes and the bulkheads protecting them from sinkage caused by erosion, and increase the bacterial count in the canal to the point that it endangers residents, and marine and wildlife.

Although it's no guarantee the necessary permits won't eventually be forthcoming -- parish officials have supported development almost from the beginning -- Brock and his neighbors aren't alone in opposition. Most of their concerns are shared by environmental groups and several federal and state agencies.

The buildout of what is sometimes called Oak Harbor East, geographically the largest primarily residential development in parish history, will involve dredging and fill work on a scale unseen even in fast-growing St. Tammany.

And the impact on water quality, especially in the lake, is a key concern, said project reviewer Darrell Barbara of the corps' New Orleans office.

Similar concerns are shared by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which notes that tidally influenced wetlands in the project site have been designated "essential fish habitat" for various life stages of shrimp and drum.

No justification has been provided for enlarging the diversion canal, which "does not provide access to any areas within the proposed subdivision and appears to be unrelated to the proposed project," said Frederick Sutter, the service's deputy regional administrator. The service's bottom line recommendation: "Dredging of the (canal) should not be authorized. All fill material . . . should be obtained from upland sources."

In addition to numerous meetings and communications with corps' officials, Torres, his consultants and engineers have responded in writing to most of the key public comments and agency requests for more information. The corps has also met with Parish President Kevin Davis, U.S. Rep. David Vitter and U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu about the project.

The developers say widening and deepening the canal actually will improve the quality of "a degraded waterway" and reduce bank erosion. They say that lots within the development will be sloped to slow stormwater runoff.

The company also will provide for homeowners along 433 to tap into the proposed central sewage-treatment facility. That, they argue, would eliminate "the major source of pollution" in the canal. Moreover, the canal isn't being enlarged to provide fill material to elevate interior lots, the developers say.

The larger canal has long been supported by the parish. Tammany Holding says that it will bring with it "the aesthetics of a wider body of water" and a green levee, "a significant and functional amenity to enhance the quality of life" for local residents.

The company also complains that no one ever claimed widening East Diversion Canal would be detrimental to the area until the federal and state agencies opened the written comments period for the second phase of the development in July.

Troy Hill, chief of the marine and wetlands section of the Environmental Protection Agency's regional office, said the EPA is concerned that stormwater from the development has the potential to degrade water quality in the lake in a variety of ways.

The agency also is worried about water quality in the proposed interior linear lakes and in a new diversion canal, but notes that Tammany Holding is proposing a central sewerage system into which homes and camps with inadequate sewage treatment could tie in.

EPA also recommends the applicant restore part of the historic connection between the on-site wetlands and the lake, and that it seriously consider restoring wetlands at the southern end of the site by breaching the existing levee along the canal.

The secretary of wildlife and fisheries, James Jenkins Jr., insists the applicant "should clearly show if there is a real need to locate this activity in the wetlands." If Torres can do so, Jenkins said, measures to "fully compensate for the unavoidable impacts must be addressed in a mitigation plan and approved by this department."

In response to the Fisheries Service, EPA and Jenkins, Tammany Holding says the 6.7 acres of fringe wetlands will be restored, the diversion canal widening will create additional essential fish habitat and, all in all, the completed project will provide 166 acres of open tidal waters.

The project will have "no measurable effect" on the water levels in either the lake or the canal, Tammany Holding says, adding that water levels in the proposed larger canal actually will be lower than those in the existing canal during storms.

The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation and the Louisiana Audubon Council, among others, question the need for such a large development and want the corps to reject the application outright for a number of reasons.

Barring that, Tammany Holding should be required to do a full-scale environmental impact statement and a public hearing should be held, insist foundation environmental coordinator Jill Mastrototaro and Audubon Council spokesman Barry Kohl.

Kohl, a geologist and water-bottom sediments specialist, finds the project "unacceptable." He raises questions about the impact on water quality and marine life habitat, storm-surge flooding and mitigation for lost wetlands.

Tammany Holding believes it has met and will meet all applicable federal and state regulations and that neither an impact statement nor a public hearing is warranted. The company noted the long buildout period and said the project will meet current and projected future housing needs in a desirable area.

. . . . . . .

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

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