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INVESTIGATIVE UNIT: Walker Mayor says no drainage impact study required for massive project

2 months 1 week 2 days ago February 16, 2017 Feb 16, 2017 Thursday, February 16 2017 February 16, 2017 10:36 PM in News
Source: WBRZ

WALKER- Some residents in Livingston Parish claim their elected officials are to blame for flooding them out of their homes last year. They say money, power and politics are at the root of their problem, not mother nature.

Nearly 26 acres of wetlands were cleared and filled in for an expansive project. Walker officials ignored what's required in most parishes before development is allowed to proceed.

Tom Pettitt's home on a sprawling piece of property in Brentwood Estates is his little slice of heaven. Pettitt has called it home for almost 40 years and has loved every minute of it.

"In March we flooded," Pettitt said. "We had four inches in the home. We just got the home put back together in August, we flooded again."

Currently, a FEMA manufactured housing unit sits on his property as contractors work feverishly inside.

Kerry Bordelon also lives in the subdivision and flooded too. Residents blame a massive warehouse that recently took shape less than a mile north for flooding them. The Martin Brower Food Distribution center that sits off Highway 190 just opened. It has the capacity to fill more than three dozen big rigs at once. Neighbors say when the wetlands were filled in for the building, they began noticing the Hornsby Creek overflowing its banks regularly. That creek runs next to the distribution center and is located behind their subdivision.

"If you fill in a void with dirt, you fill in a void where the water should have been," Kerry Bordelon said.

Documents obtained by the WBRZ Investigative Unit show when the Army Corps of Engineers issued a permit for work to clear that property in 2015. The permit clearly stated, "you must contact the local municipal and or parish governing body regarding potential impacts to flood plains."

However, the Investigative Unit found despite what was in that permit, no drainage impact study was performed before this massive warehouse was built.

Engineers in town said they were shocked a project of this size went up without a drainage impact study. They also said people have figured out land is cheap and there are few regulations.

The Livingston Parish Planning and Zoning Department said they had nothing to do with this project, and all questions had to go to the City of Walker.

Walker Mayor Jimmy Watson was asked about if he knew why a drainage impact study wasn't required on this project.

"Sure don't," Watson said.

Watson took over as mayor this year. Before that, he was a long-time employee in public works.

We asked if it was concerning to him that an impact study wasn't done.

"Not really," Watson said. "I know of other areas where we've done the same thing with no issues."

The WBRZ Investigative Unit obtained documents for the Martin Brower Property. They include a bunch of numbers, maps and tables. Most of it is meaningless to average folks. We shared those documents with engineers familiar with drainage impact studies. What we found was the City of Walker allowed this massive project to go through with a simpler drainage analysis. That is different from a much more extensive drainage impact study that would focus on the large region around it.

"I cannot find any evidence of a drainage impact study per se," Watson said.

If this project was built outside the city limits of Walker or in any of the surrounding parishes, the Investigative Unit found a drainage impact study would have been required. They are voluminous in size. The engineer we showed the documents to said he couldn't be interviewed in fear of losing a job or never being hired again.

However, he issued a statement and said, "Until that community has grown to the point that there are enough people there to understand taht you can't continue to develop without rules, things will continue to remain the same."

We asked Watson since he and the council set the policies if their requirement would change.

"We require that it needs to be done based on the expert advice of our engineers," Watson said. "They are required to be done through our policy based on the expert analysis of our engineers."

Because the city had full jurisdiction over this project and not the parish, a drainage impact study wasn't required. It doesn't sound like that will change.

"I'm going to rely on the experts," Watson said. "I'm not an expert on drainage. You're not an expert on drainage. He says he's an engineer. He may know what he's talking about. I'm just leaving it at that."

Tonight, neighbors like Bordelon and Pettitt aren't ruling out legal action.

"Somebody dropped the ball," Bordelon said. "Somebody's not doing their job."

"There's a lot of negligence on their part," Pettitt said. "We want the revenue and the business. But, they're not looking out for the residents in this area south of the development."

Both men are making plans for their future. When asked if this makes them want to move, Pettitt said, "definitely."

Martin Brower, the Company with its name on the Distribution Center released a statement to the Investigative Unit saying, "Martin Brower worked closely with local, state and federal officials to ensure compliance with all applicable laws and regulations."

For the past few days, the Investigative Unit has reached out to the engineer over the project, at Alvin Fairburn and Associates in Denham Springs. He never returned our phone calls.

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