The law firm providing legal services to the city of New Orleans as it seeks to distribute $35 million to Gordon Plaza residents, whose homes were built by the city’s housing authority on a toxic landfill, signed a contract on Friday for a new appraiser. 

Sher Garner Cahill Richter Klein & Hilbert inked a letter of agreement, obtained by The Lens, with appraiser Chris Baker of ARC Appraisers, which would entitle Baker to $140,000 for his work appraising 67 properties in the Gordon Plaza development. The contract also includes a stipulation that Baker would be entitled to $350 per hour for consulting services if he receives approval from the law firm.

City Council President JP Morrell and Councilmember Helena Moreno, as well as the city’s Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño, said at a Thursday City Council’s Gordon Plaza Task Force that they wanted the city attorney’s office to direct Sher Garner to assign a new appraiser to handle the properties. Sher Garner previously used Jim Thorns of Thorns Consulting to fulfill the role of appraiser. 

Throughout the process of allocating and distributing money to the residents of Gordon Plaza, whose homes are located on a government-backed development that the Environmental Protection Agency designated as a Superfund site in the 1990s, residents, and at least one councilmember, have soured on Thorns’ work product. Residents have worked to replace him with Baker, who pointed out what he considered to be numerous flaws in the sample appraisal Thorns produced.

“Our position has never changed as far as ensuring that the residents have the opportunity to use an appraiser that they trust,” Montaño said during Thursday’s meeting. 

Using federal funding available through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city and HANO began constructing townhouses at Press Park and single-family homes at Gordon Plaza – housing developments designed for low-income and elderly residents –  on top of the then-closed Agriculture Street Landfill. (Press Park has been closed since Hurricane Katrina). The homes in the Gordon Plaza subdivision were promoted to Black residents as inexpensive, high-quality housing.

Families began living in the Gordon Plaza complex in the early 1980s and the Orleans Parish School Board later built Moton Elementary School on the site as well.

Opened in 1909, the landfill comprised 95 acres of former swampland. Workers sprayed pesticides on the site like DDT, which is a “probable” human carcinogen, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The city closed the site in 1957, only to reopen it again for a year in 1965 to both burn and dispose of waste and debris caused by Hurricane Betsy. 

The soil upon which the city built Gordon Plaza is contaminated with lead, arsenic along with some 140 other toxic agents, 49 of which have been linked to cancer, according to a lawsuit a group of residents filed against the city in 2018. The EPA classified the area as a Superfund site in 1994, at which point the Orleans Parish School Board shuttered Moton.

The sole respondent to the administration’s search for a law firm came from Sher Garner Cahill Richter Klein & Hilbert. Sher Garner’s contract with the city is to provide legal services. The city ultimately plans to convert part of the site into a 5-megawatt solar energy farm.

For Jesse Perkins, resident of Gordon Plaza, it’s past time for the city to distribute the $35 million the city council allocated for residents in June. 

“After all of the decades that people have endured with this madness, with this injustice, we just want the city to – just don’t play games,” Perkins told The Lens on Friday. “Let’s get this thing done. Let’s get these appraisals, and then let people decide if they want to take the offers and move forward. That’s all we’re asking for.”

Even though Sher Garner has signed off on hiring Baker as a subcontractor who would perform appraisal services, the law firm wouldn’t necessarily need to replace Jim Thorns, the appraiser the firm has already hired as a subcontractor. 

“All I know right now is that if a contract is signed, Chris Baker will become an additional subcontractor of Sher Garner,” John Lawson, press secretary for Cantrell, told The Lens. “Thorns remains a subcontractor of Sher Garner.”

If indeed Sher Garner retains Thorns, while also having Baker act as an appraiser, that could unnecessarily complicate the process for the residents, Lauren Godshall, clinical assistant professor of law at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, who is helping to represent the residents, told The Lens on Friday. 

“We’re hoping that it doesn’t, but it could lead to issues down the line where one property has two different appraisals,” Godshall said. “How is the city going to then determine how to pay for that resident’s house and get them off site?”

Debra Fischman, an attorney with Sher Garner who has represented the firm at previous Gordon Plaza meetings held by the city council, declined to comment for this story. Fischman signed the letter of engagement for Baker on Friday. 

Lawson told The Lens on Tuesday that Sher Garner’s contract with the city is worth $100,000 – which does not include so-called acquisition costs. Those costs, which would presumably include appraisers’ fees, would be paid for from a pool of $2 million set aside as part of a “citywide Stormwater resilience project,” he said.

Appraisals at a crossroads

Determining the value of the residents’ homes has become the bottleneck issue that has prevented the city from distributing the $35 million that the city council allocated for residents last year. 

A study authored, in part, by two professors at Tulane University in December 2021 concluded that the total cost of relocating the 67 Gordon Plaza households would be $34.2 million. But the city can’t simply accept those figures without performing its own due diligence, ​​the city attorney’s office has maintained. 

At the request of the residents, Thorns agreed to do a first home appraisal as a sample and release the results to the public so residents could get a clear picture of his methodology. The city released that offer in October, but the residents found the proposal to be lacking.

The appraisal was done on one of the largest homes in Gordon Plaza at 2,248 square feet. The total value was set at $348,000, or $152 per square foot — significantly lower than the $292 per square foot that was suggested in the Tulane study. Sheena Dedmond, whose property was the subject of the proposal, told The Lens at the time that the appraisal was unacceptable. 

Residents had repeatedly sparred with Thorns regarding which methods should be employed to determine the properties’ values. They’ve consistently argued that “fair market value” was an inappropriate lens through which to view the properties because, in the eyes of the market, the homes are essentially worthless. 

Many have also expressed concern that the appraisal process itself has historically disadvantaged Black communities and homeowners. Residents and council members had previously pointed to Louisiana’s Road Home Program in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which notoriously offered homeowners in Black communities far less money to rebuild by relying on their appraised value before the storm, rather than the cost to rebuild.

Thorns has said he is attempting to assess the fair market values of the homes by comparing the prices of nearby properties that are “unimpaired” by the toxic land and stigma of Gordon Plaza. For Dedmon’s assessment, Thorns looked at three new-build homes in the Pontchartrain Park neighborhood roughly two miles north of Gordon Plaza. 

Baker, for his part, wrote a letter to Dedmon in October that pointed out what he considered to be flaws in Thorns’ appraisal. Those deficiencies included, among others, Thorns’ decision to utilize a form that was retired from use “decades ago,” Baker said. 

Thorns has so far completed between eight and 10 appraisals, Kevin Hill, a lawyer with the city’s attorney’s office said on Thursday. He’s charging $600 per appraisal, Hill said. 

But Thorns also is entitled to a consulting fee of $350 per hour, Moreno said on Thursday, and he has so far logged 80 hours worth of consulting work –which combined with the appraisal fee for eight properties, totals more than $32,000. That would amount to more than $4,000 per property, she said. 

Baker, by contrast, would charge a flat fee of approximately $2,089 per property – which would total $140,000 for the 67 properties. Baker’s contract, though, contains a similar stipulation for consulting work, The Lens has learned, but requires approval from Sher Garner. That’s in contrast to Thorns’ engagement letter, which didn’t spell out any such restriction. 

The march of time has been especially cruel to the residents of Gordon Plaza who are still living on top of a toxic dump, activist Angela Kinlaw said Thursday. She wanted to know that Baker’s contract would be signed by Thursday evening. 

“All we’re looking for at that point in time is a confirmation from you all that it is signed today – before we all go to sleep tonight,” she said. “We would all like to go to sleep peacefully tonight.”

Joshua Rosenberg

Joshua Rosenberg covers the environmental beat for The Lens. Joshua is a Report for America corps member, and is working in collaboration with the Mississippi River Basin Ag and Water Desk. Prior to joining...