Army corps to make recommendation on reservoir site

Residents living on proposed site, lawmakers want project abandoned

BY ELONA WESTON AMERICAN PRESS
Sep 8, 2004 Metro-State Page 11

MITTIE — Residents of two rural Allen Parish communities will have to wait until later this month to learn the fate of their homes.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will make its final recommendation in two or three weeks on the site of the proposed Allen Parish Reservoir, said state Sen. Don Hines, D-Bunkie.

Hines and state Rep. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, wrote the reservoir legislation in April 2002. The bill was sponsored by state Rep. Herman Ray Hill, D-Dry Creek.

Hines, the Senate president, said that when he was elected in 1993, Allen Parish residents favored a reservoir, but that no one considered the displacement of homes — a certainty if the Six Mile and Ten Mile communities are selected as the site.

Mill Creek, located in the center of the West Bay Game Preserve, is the only site where homes would not be compromised.

Hines and Hill are urging the Allen Parish Reservoir Commission not to approve a site that will claim scenic rivers or homes. The two lawmakers plan to meet with the commission chairman, Phil Beard, on Thursday to voice their concerns on the proposed sites.

‘‘I think if they (Corps of Engineers) recommend anything other than Mill Creek, we should abandon the project even though we’ve spent quite a bit of money doing environmental impact studies,’’ Hines said Friday.

Hines’ words come as a relief to members of the Community Preservation Alliance — a group of residents opposed to the lake’s placement in the two communities.

For months, residents have cast a watchful eye on the issue, researching legislation, political affiliations and reservoir projects across the state to learn how the idea of a reservoir in their back yards was birthed.

In their quest to know more, alliance members believe they’ve found potential wrongdoing — ranging from suspicious legislation to inappropriate political connections — linked to the development of state reservoir projects.

They hope the information will prompt Gov. Kathleen Blanco to call for an investigation into the alleged political corruption.

The alliance believes reservoirs are being built statewide at the expense of taxpayers, and are not economic development vehicles or means for safeguarding the future of the state’s water supply as some claim.

Members believe the projects financially benefit a few of the state’s politically connected residents.

‘‘I think it’s worthy of an internal (state) investigation within the state,’’ said alliance president Charles Horton.

The history

After legislation was approved to create the Allen Parish Reservoir District, Gov. Mike Foster appointed five lake commissioners: Buddy Farris of Oakdale, Roland Hollins of Mittie, Gary Pelican of Kinder, Billy Reeves of Reeves and Phil Beard of Oberlin, chairman.

Farris and Hollins are Allen Parish police jurors, Reeves is a former police juror and Beard is Oberlin mayor.

Commissioners were given the authority to select a lake site, contingent on environmental opinions from the Corps of Engineers.

Michael Thompson, former Delhi mayor and a member of Blanco’s transition team, was hired as project consultant. He’s the brother of state Rep. Francis Thompson, who wrote several reservoir-related legislative measures, including Allen Parish’s.

Denmon Engineering of Monroe was selected as the project’s engineering firm. The company has also worked on the Poverty Point Reservoir, Bayou DeChene Reservoir in Caldwell Parish, Castor Creek Reservoir in Rapides Parish and the West Ouachita Reservoir in Ouachita Parish.

For months, the commission has been waiting on the opinion from the corps to make the final announcement.

The alliance hopes its communities are not selected. But if the decision goes against them, they are prepared.

‘‘We are going to try to do it like professionals and then when it gets unprofessional, we’re going to drop the hammer,’’ said member Bob Simmons.

Legislative oddities

Questions about the reservoir project’s legislative history are being raised by the alliance, which believes the opinions and livelihood of voters and taxpayers were never considered.

In the original Allen Parish legislation, a section provides for the expropriation of land. Taxes can also be levied for the project after the lake is built.

The lake district can acquire by ‘‘purchase, donation, expropriation, or otherwise every type and species of property, including servitudes and rights-of-use necessary to its purpose, and may lease, build, operate and maintain any works or machinery designed to accomplish the purposes of the district.’’

Alliance member James Moore thinks this is tantamount to stealing.

‘‘Expropriation means to take without asking,’’ he said. ‘‘It is more or less stealing.’’

Horton agrees. He said government has always used expropriation in the building of roadways, but in a case where scenic waterways — Six and Ten Mile creeks — would be destroyed, along with homes and lives, he doesn’t see the logic.

‘‘This would not be out of necessity, it would be for pleasure,’’ Horton said. ‘‘It makes absolutely no sense to me.’’

Other legislation that the group finds troubling has little to do with Allen Parish, however. Concerns have been raised over provisions made for Richland Parish’s Poverty Point, a project for which Michael Thompson also consults.

The Poverty Point project began in 1992 and is now touted as a model lake.

Legislation passed in 2001, sponsored by state Rep. Thompson, makes it possible to sell land taken by eminent domain to a third party without offering it back to the original owner.

Moore felt so strongly about these issues that he recently wrote Blanco formally questioning the legislation.

‘‘The misuse of eminent domain and expropriation, and the large amounts of money available for economic development, hundreds of millions of dollars per lake, may be leading to wrongdoing,’’ he wrote.

‘‘The state of Louisiana seems to be in the real estate business and able to offer great deals on lakefront property complete with golf courses, recreation areas and keyed gate entry lakefront homes.’’

The alliance also questions the connection between Michael Thompson and his legislator brother, who was involved in reservoir lawmaking.

Thompson denies that he has used his brother’s position to benefit himself.

‘‘That’s like saying, because your brother is a doctor, you get free prescriptions," Thompson said last week. "There’s not much of a basis for that."

Questions remain

Alliance members say they are thankful legislators worked to get the Six and Ten Mile streams listed on the scenic river system years ago — which has given some protection to the sites.

But they question why engineering studies were ever performed on the creeks since they are protected waterways.

‘‘Why are we spending the state’s money doing studies and surveys on two locations where they can’t build anyway, other than the fact that we are lining some people’s pockets?" Horton said.

Alliance members’ aims are to raise public awareness on the issue and get answers to questions they say have been ignored.

They are relying on local legislators to work with the commission to resolve the issues. Also, members don’t believe that Hines and Hill were given the full scope of the project when it was first introduced.

‘‘Initially, if I was a politician and you told me you were going to spend $25 to $40 million dollars in my parish, I would have been gung-ho for it. I don’t fault them for that,’’ Horton said.

Alliance members say they won’t rest easy until they know exactly where their communities stand.

‘‘I’d much would rather be at home watching LSU," Simmons said.

‘‘I’d rather be doing anything than fighting this, but I’m willing to sacrifice and work hard to see that our mission is accomplished.’’

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