Greenfield, Louisiana provided this rendering of the Wallace Grain Export Facility, showing a 500-foot “buffer zone” of fence and trees between any Greenfield building and adjacent residential properties.

On Monday evening — after years of debate and court battles — the planning commission of St. John the Baptist Parish finally voted to allow heavy industrial uses on a disputed plot on the parish’s rural West Bank.

The large swath of agricultural land in Wallace, La. once housed the Whitney Plantation’s slave quarters, burial grounds and sugar mill. It has been at the forefront of environmental justice advocacy for decades.

Darryl Malek-Wiley, an organizer with the Sierra Club, first spoke out against the rezoning of the land in 1990, when the site was slated for a Formosa Plastics plant, he told Monday’s planning commission audience. Despite his testimony, the land’s zoning was changed to industrial that year, through the influence of former Parish President Lester Millet Jr. 

The Formosa plant was never built. But now, Greenfield Louisiana has leased the land, with hopes of constructing a massive grain terminal on the site. The proposed terminal is at the heart of this heated local debate: the terminal can only move forward if the land is zoned for heavy industrial uses.

In August 2023, three decades after the original rezoning, Judge Sterling Snowdy deemed the 1990 zoning ordinance to be null and void, because Millet sidestepped a requirement to bring the ordinance before the planning commission. His tactics while in office also earned him federal prison time for extortion, money laundering and racketeering. 

In September, a review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers added to the debate, after Corps researchers determined that the non-profit museum at the Whitney Plantation was one of five distinct historic places that could suffer “adverse effects” from the construction of the Greenfield Grain Terminal. (In the wake of Monday’s vote, Greenfield officials said that, though they could not reveal specifics, they were working with the Corps “on mitigation, minimization and avoidance,” according to Lynda Van Davis, counsel and head of external affairs for Greenfield, Louisiana.)

For the next several months, parish leaders appeared in court multiple times, to defend the way they’d tried to rezone the land for heavy industrial use.

In November, Judge Nghana Lewis prohibited the parish from rezoning the land under a new application filed by Parish President Jaclyn Hotard. 

And in December, Lewis granted a temporary restraining order to prohibit the parish from rezoning the land under a new resolution described in pre-meeting agendas in terms that critics said were too vague to comply with Louisiana’s Open Meetings Law. To the parish council’s lawyers, Lewis urged that future meeting notices be clear enough for the public to understand.

At its February meeting, after releasing a more detailed agenda, the parish council moved forward to approve a new rezoning resolution about the contested land. The resolution, introduced by Councilwoman Virgie Johnson, was placed on the March 18 planning commission docket.

On Monday, commissioners voted 6-2 to rezone the 1,300 acres of land.

Buffer zones and 2,000-foot distances from residential: how much space is required between homes and heavy industry in St. John?

From the fenceline of modern-day Whitney Plantation, sugarcane still dominates the landscape here, before the Gramercy Bridge. Greenfield’s proposed grain terminal would be built in this space, with the elevator towering over the bridge. Photo by La’Shance Perry / The Lens Credit: La'Shance Perry / Environment – The Lens

All seats in the St. John parish council chambers were filled long before the meeting started on Monday night. Along the chamber’s back wall, a few dozen residents stood, waiting to step to the podium and offer public comment. 

As opponents of rezoning got their chance at the microphone, some common threads emerged. Some residents of Wallace worried about the proximity between their homes and the Greenfield terminal. Two urban planners, Justin Kray and Amy Stelly, criticized a “flawed” analysis conducted by a parish consultant, Jemison & Partners, Inc., which they said did not comply with parish law.

Kray and Stelly cited the Code of Ordinances for St. John Parish, which requires that land zoned for heavy industrial use must be located “a minimum of 2,000 feet away from a concentration of one dwelling unit per acre.”

Wallace is a small, traditionally Black hamlet founded by formerly enslaved men who fought in the Civil War and returned to St. John to buy land.

Jemison found that the Wallace community has less than one dwelling per acre, unable to trigger the minimum 2,000-foot locational criteria. In fact, Jemison calculated only one dwelling unit per seven acres of gross area.

But Kray believes that Jemison should have evaluated residential density using the neighborhood’s clearly defined edges instead of Jemison’s choice of boundaries — the U.S. Census-designated places — which include the Mississippi River and parts of St. John’s East Bank.

To test his theory, Kray found that — using Jemison’s methodology — not a single residential neighborhood in the entire parish would qualify for the 2,000-foot required protection area from heavy industrial areas. 

“If we accept the way the parish is evaluating the standards of the 2,000-foot requirement, based on density… we would not have protection anywhere,” said Joy Banner, a native of Wallace and the co-founder of The Descendants Project, a non-profit founded in 2021 to advocate for the Black community in Louisiana’s river parishes. 

Urban planner Amy Stelly wondered aloud whether Jemison skewed the results to allow the Greenfield project to move forward. “In short, the Jemison math ain’t mathing,” she said. “It never will.”

Stelly walked the audience through her own calculations, using the edges of the Wallace neighborhood, which found the density to be 1.68 dwelling units per acre – high enough to trigger the required 2,000-foot separation. 

This is not the first time that St. John Parish has run into issues concerning its industrial-buffer standards. In January 2023, The Lens reported that the zoning department had published draft revisions that drastically decreased the required buffer from 2,000 feet to a 30-foot setback. The department said that the draft’s changes were unintentional; the changes were not adopted.

Van Davis, of Greenfield, said that the 2,000-foot locational requirement was being conflated with the rules requiring a buffer zone. “The only thing that is required as it relates to a buffer zone is a fence and some trees,” she added.

According to the parish Code of Ordinances, the “buffer zone” refers to the requirement of a “100 percent sight-obscuring fence, a minimum of eight feet in height” and “one large tree for each 15 feet of lot, depth or width to be put in place in the side and rear yards for the purpose of screening.”

Greenfield’s silos will be at least 500 feet from its closest residential neighbor, including a 10-foot fence line and required tree line, Van Davis said.

Despite the urban planners’ criticisms, Van Davis stood by Jemison’s calculation of residential density in Wallace, which to her rendered moot the need for a 2,000-foot distance from Greenfield’s terminal to nearby homes.

Late Thursday, The Descendants Project filed a motion to block the St. John Parish Council from rezoning the Greenfield property for heavy industrial use during its next meeting on April 9. At the heart of the motion is whether the 2,000-foot requirement applies to the neighborhood next to Greenfield.

Local tensions are high

Jo and Joy Banner, co-founders of The Descendants Project, announce the non-profit’s acquisition of the Woodland Plantation in LaPlace, La. The plantation, site of the largest slave revolt in American history, is now under Black ownership for the first time in its 231-year history. Photo by La’Shance Perry / The Lens

Dr. Reggie Ross, a physician from Edgard appearing on behalf of Greenfield, spoke on Monday about his experiences treating cancer patients within the river parishes, which are part of the area between Baton Rouge and New Orleans nicknamed “Cancer Alley” for its disproportionate burden of toxic air emissions from the rows of industrial plants sited along the Mississippi River here.

“We don’t call it ‘Cancer Alley’ because of grain elevators. It’s ‘Cancer Alley’ because of the petrochemical industries,” Ross said. Any release of small particulate matter, which irritates the lungs and heart, could be reduced through new technologies in a modern grain elevator, he said.

Throughout the meeting, it was clear that the Greenfield debate has exacerbated tensions throughout Wallace and nearby areas, where many residents have known each other for generations.

Joy Banner was critical, both of the position Ross had taken and his explanation. “He’s not an expert in particulate matter,” she said. She believed that his testimony could put residents at ease about Greenfield’s potential harm to Wallace. “It’s dangerous. People trust him as a Black medical doctor. His word means a lot.”

But Banner had heard Ross testify from the lobby of the government building because parish officials had asked her to leave the meeting. 

She was ousted because she interrupted Tanisha Marshall, project director for Greenfield, Louisiana, as Marshall announced to the meeting that in 2021, Banner had assaulted a woman who had visited Banner’s home on behalf of Greenfield.

At its face, the accusation seemed to be largely a ploy to remove Banner, a key local leader to Greenfield’s opposition, before a vote that paved the way for Greenfield to construct its controversial terminal in Wallace. No law-enforcement report about the matter was released; no one asserted that any formal charges were ever filed against Banner. A video of the event obtained by The Lens, and posted on The Descendants Project Facebook page, showed a verbal disagreement but contained no proof that Banner put a hand on the other Wallace resident. In the video, the woman is walking away; Banner is recording the conversation on her cell phone.

“Greenfield came and knocked on my door,” Banner said. Yet, this is not an anonymous Greenfield representative; this, again, seems to be the larger Greenfield struggle expressed within small-town tensions. In the video, as the two women argued, they called each other by first names. The woman whom Banner allegedly assaulted is a lifelong resident of the small community – she clearly would have known Banner’s position on Greenfield’s proposal long before she raised her hand to knock on Banner’s door.

From the testimony, it seems that Greenfield’s supporters embraced the proposed terminal because its potential noise and emissions are outweighed by the promise of future money and jobs, in a largely rural area where opportunity has long been lacking.

For years, it’s been a point of contention here that Wallace’s high school graduates often must leave home to find good work – the kind that can support families over a lifetime. Many who spoke in support of Greenfield during the commission expressed hope that Greenfield could bring new economic opportunity to the West Bank of St. John Parish. 

 “I am concerned about my community because it is dying,” said resident Nicole Dumas. 

Across the nation, economic opportunity is a powerful draw for those stuck in declining rural economies. A few decades ago, some economists began studying a phenomenon they called “Yes, In My Backyard,” as some areas, often rural, low-income areas, began to actively recruit heavy industry, prisons and landfills – sometimes called “industries of last resort” – in hope of bringing new growth to areas that had flatlined economically.

In St. John, opponents hoped that their neighbors could see other, less intrusive options for economic opportunity. “I think the West Bank is worth more than that,” said Cory Batiste, senior pastor at Beech Grove Baptist Church. “We’re better than people telling us we can only accept a plant.”

Jo Banner, Joy’s twin sister, said that the parish should support economic development through the existing heritage and tourism business on the West Bank. “We have the whole world contacting us to develop this market,” she said.

But Dumas was skeptical. “What has historic preservation done to benefit my community?” she asked.

Editorial note: Lens Reporter Marta Jewson’s partner is David Lanser, an attorney at Most & Associates which represents The Descendants Project. As a precaution, Jewson stepped out of the editing process for this story.

The subtitle has been updated to reflect that commissioners can only recommend rezoning; the ultimate approval must now be given by parish council. The story now reflects additional information about Millet’s actions in 1990. In addition, the article was updated on March 22 to reflect an additional legal filing.