Update: After publication of this article, a spokesperson for St. John the Baptist Parish contacted The Lens to say that “unintended changes to standards occurred during the transfer to the revised code related to industrial buffer standards,” and that the parish is not considering a zoning change that would reduce its current 2,000 foot buffer zone requirement. The parish’s scheduled public meetings were canceled due to scheduling conflicts, the spokesperson said, and the parish will restart the public engagement process, which will include two public workshops and a public hearing, once a revised draft is complete.

The St. John the Baptist Parish Zoning Department recently released draft zoning revisions that would appear to dramatically reduce the distance from which heavy industrial sites can be located next to residential developments, then on Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, postponed its scheduled meetings meant to provide a forum for public input.

The draft zoning changes would apparently remove the requirement that heavy industrial sites be located at least 2,000 feet away from residential dwellings, instead requiring that such sites observe setbacks of at least 30 feet. Public meetings were originally scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, and the zoning department has yet to reschedule them. 

Twin sisters Jo and Joy Banner, founders of the nonprofit group the Descendants Project who are engaged in litigation with the parish regarding a separate zoning ordinance that was passed in 1990 – which the Colorado-based company Greenfield Louisiana LLC has invoked in their plans to construct a large grain terminal in Wallace – called attention to the potential zoning changes during a Facebook Live stream last week. 

“This is not just a Wallace problem, a Wallace issue; it’s not just a West Bank problem,” Joy Banner said. “This is going to have to apply to the entire parish.” 

Still, it’s not altogether clear that the proposed changes would have a direct, or at least immediate, impact on the litigation with the parish, in which Greenfield is involved as an intervenor. 

Greenfield bought the tract of land at issue in the case, which comprises some 1,100 acres, for $40 million in 2021. The company plans to build a large grain elevator on the property, worth more than $400 million, that would include more than 50 grain silos, a conveyor belt, railroad infrastructure and a dock. A study produced by the economic development agency Greater New Orleans, Inc., found that the grain elevator project would produce, among other things, 100 direct jobs.

The Descendants Project, a nonprofit led by the Banner sisters that advocates on behalf of the descendants of people once enslaved in Louisiana’s River Parishes, sued the parish in 2021 in order to nullify the zoning ordinance upon which the construction would rely. St. John is located in the so-called chemical corridor along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, thus named because of its high concentration of industrial facilities. 

For its part, Greenfield stated that the draft zoning rules have nothing to do with the company. 

“The draft zoning revisions do not impact our site, nor does Greenfield have anything to do with this issue,” a media representative for Greenfield told The Lens on Thursday. “As such, Greenfield doesn’t have a comment.”

Tara Lambeth, director of zoning and planning for St. John Parish, could not be reached for comment on Thursday. But her office told The Lens that the public meetings have yet to be rescheduled, and the office will provide public notice when they are. 

Conflicting zoning designations 

The Descendants Project ultimately wants a Louisiana state court to nullify Ordinance 90-27 – which rezoned the tract of land at issue in the Greenfield case from residential to heavy industrial (that is, from R-1 to I-3 designations) –  given the highly corrupt nature in which it went into effect more than three decades ago, in 1990, the residents have argued.

A federal jury determined in 1996 that former St. John the Baptist Parish President Lester Millet, Jr. engaged in an extortion and money-laundering scheme when he helped shepherd through the controversial ordinance, which would have allowed a Tawainese company, Formosa Plastics, to build a factory on the same tract of land at issue in the Greenfield case. 

Even though Millet was sentenced to almost five years in jail for his actions and the Formosa plant was never built, the ordinance — which rezoned the area and to allow for a heavy industrial site to be located up to 300 feet away from residential dwellings — remains on the parish’s books. 

Most recently, the residents scored an important legal victory in August when a state appellate court, the Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed a decision issued by Judge J. Sterling Snowdy of the 40th Judicial District Court in LaPlace, who previously ruled that the residents could move forward in their attempt to nullify the Ordinance 90-27.

In their lawsuit, the residents have stated that there are at least four separate zoning maps the parish government has presented to the public that offer conflicting categorizations of the tract of land at issue. And at one time, it appears that a key zoning map was simply lost, they noted. 

Further complicating the matter is the fact that when Formosa sold the tract of land to the Robert brothers in 2006, they commissioned a survey that classified the tract of land at issue as residential, which is a designation the parish government signed off on, the residents argued.

For Joy Banner, what her group was able to learn about the parish’s previous zoning practices may be especially relevant for the proposed zoning revisions that the parish government recently unveiled. 

“When we we got involved, started organizing to protect our communities and our neighborhoods from Greenfield and having this massive terminal around us – which we could not live in our neighborhoods if that plant is present — one of the first things that we tried to get people involved [was] with the message that ‘If they’re doing it to Wallace, they could do it to all of us. If they’re willing to sacrifice one of us they’re willing to sacrifice all of us,’” she said last week.

“And it seems like the parish, at least from the information that we have, [is] making moves where all of our buffer zones are going to be removed from us.”

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...