The New Orleans City Council has paved the way for the Port of New Orleans to develop two parcels of marshland along the Intracoastal Waterway that environmentalists say should be preserved for flood prevention.

The council voted unanimously on Feb. 22 to change the future land use map of the city’s Master Plan, which determines how the sites can be zoned.

There has been considerable debate in the past year between those who say the city should preserve the area to store rainwater and guard against storm surge, and others who favor developing the land and bringing more jobs.

“Industrializing these wetlands would absolutely be a public safety risk,” Grace Morris of the Sierra Club said at the city council hearing last week. “If you take out wetlands, you are undermining the billions of dollars that were spent on new hurricane protection around the city.”

“If you take out wetlands, you are undermining the billions of dollars that were spent on new hurricane protection around the city.”—Grace Morris, Sierra Club

The properties lie behind the city’s hurricane protection system, so port officials say they’re of little use in slowing a tropical storm.

Karley Frankic, a planner for the Port of New Orleans, said the city shouldn’t worry about protecting wetlands because they’re already covered under federal regulations. Developers wanting to fill wetlands protected under the federal Clean Water Act need permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“It is not necessary for the city to add yet another layer of regulation to that to hinder development of these sites,” Frankic said.

The debate began in January 2017, when the City Planning Commission took up the port’s request to amend the Master Plan, its general land-use framework, by designating the land use as industrial.

The commission denied the request. The port tried again, and in October planning commissioners changed their minds.

The council ratified the planning commission’s decision last week, grouping it with a number of other changes to the Master Plan.

The port’s land is located in a triangle-shaped area between eastern New Orleans and Chalmette, on both sides of the Intracoastal Waterway.

The first parcel sits between Almonaster Boulevard and the northern bank of the Intracoastal, just west of Paris Road.

It was designated as “planned development” in the city’s Master Plan. The category allows for limited residential, commercial and some industrial uses but mandates that 60 percent of the land remain open, such as wetlands and parks.

The second parcel is on the south side of the Intracoastal. It was designated as a “natural area,” which doesn’t allow development that would significantly impact the land.

Before the city’s first Master Plan, passed in 2010, Frankic said both sites were used to store dredged sediment.

They could be used for any number of purposes, such as a distribution center, a transloading facility, or a packaging facility. First, though, the port must ask the city to rezone the properties to allow industrial uses.

The port’s proposal sparked considerable debate among commission members in October. But during council hearings in January and February, only Councilman James Gray II spoke about the issue. The land is in his district.

He sided with the port. “No matter what we do here, or say,” he said, “construction on wetlands still would comply with federal rules and regulations that are designed to protect us.”

Frankic told the City Planning Commission in October the properties are essentially useless for flood protection because they’re behind levees that are 10 to 14 feet high, as well as the Lake Borgne Surge Barrier, which was built to prevent water from being funneled into the city.

The port had challenged whether the land would be considered wetlands because it hadn’t been designated as such by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Frankic walked back that argument before the city council last week, acknowledging that some of the properties had been designated wetlands in 2003 after a prospective tenant applied for a permit to develop the property.

The designation expired in 2009, but the Corps could easily delineate the area as wetlands again.

That permit was issued for a power plant that was never built. Frankic said at last week’s hearing that one of the conditions of the permit was that the tenant had to conserve 60 acres of wetlands in St. John the Baptist Parish.

If the port is asked to make a similar deal, it owns 152 acres nearby that can be used for mitigation, she said. That property is in the Golden Triangle, an area of wetlands between the Intracoastal, Lake Borgne, and the now-closed Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet.

The two properties the port wants to rezone are about 280 acres.

Louis David, vice president for industry at the New Orleans Business Alliance, said developing the properties would boost the local economy. Port of New Orleans jobs pay an average of $63,000 a year, he said, 37 percent higher than the average salary in New Orleans.

Environmental groups say developing the wetlands runs counter to the state’s 50-year plan to protect the coast and restore some of what has crumbled into the Gulf of Mexico.

The restoration plan says, “Wetland areas inside the hurricane protection system need to remain intact and undeveloped.”

In a letter to the city council, members of the MRGO Must Go Coalition argued that the port’s request could hinder the state’s planned restoration of the Central Wetlands, located nearby on the south side of the Intracoastal and the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet.

The state’s restoration plan calls for building a sediment diversion to reconnect the river to the Central Wetlands and for using pipelines to pump dredged material into marshes in New Orleans and St. Bernard.

Beverly Wright, founding director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, said developing the properties, along with Entergy’s plan to build a new power plant nearby, could compound environmental problems for neighbors.

“Each proposal,” she said, “would continue the unjust pattern of disproportionately burdening predominately African-American and Vietnamese-American neighborhoods with toxic pollution, flood risk and other environmental hazards.”

Della Hasselle

Della Hasselle, a freelance journalist and producer, reports environmental and criminal justice stories for The Lens. A graduate of Benjamin Franklin High School and the New Orleans Center for Creative...