​Controversial grain elevator proposed for St. John moves another step closer to Being Built

NEW ORLEANS, LA - A controversial $225 million grain export elevator project proposed for the west bank of St. John the Baptist Parish won a key rezoning decision before the parish planning commission Monday night.

The decision rezoned about 1,300 acres of land between the Wallace community and the Whitney Plantation Museum from residential to industrial use, and also allowed the Greenfield Louisiana LLC's elevator facilities to be located as close as 300 feet from Wallace homes.

The project is now expected to be scheduled for a vote by the parish council on April 9, according to St. John the Baptist Parish President Jaclyn Hotard. The proposal is part of a larger debate over environmental justice concerns along the industrial corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that activists label "Cancer Alley."

The 6-2 vote of the planning commission came after Wallace residents and members of The Descendants Project local advocacy group warned that allowing only a 300-foot buffer for the project would set a precedent that could result in major petrochemical facilities being built near other residential neighborhoods in the parish.

The rezoning was also opposed by Brian Davis, executive director of the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation, who said the elevator project would disrupt tourism visits to the Whitney Plantation and other historic facilities in the area.

Descendants' officials and the National Urban League have also raised concerns about construction disrupting potential archaeological sites, including graves of slaves, on the property.

Several Wallace residents also warned that dramatic increases in truck traffic caused by grain deliveries would damage highways and cause traffic jams in the parish. They also warned that tiny dust particles from the elevator's operations would cause lung damage, and could cause lung cancer.

Dr. Reginald Ross, an Edgard physician appearing on behalf of Greenfield, disputed those claims, saying environmental improvements by modern elevators would result in little grain dust from its operation.

Joy Banner, one of the Descendants leaders, was removed from the meeting after objecting to comments made by a Greenfield supporter that she said accused her of assaulting a person who was attempting to meet residents in the Wallace neighborhood on behalf of the company.

Banner was removed after repeatedly yelling that the assault never happened.

"We appreciate the transparent process led by the St. John the Baptist Parish Planning and Zoning Commission for the proposed site of the Greenfield Grain Export facility," said Lynda Van Davis, counsel and head of external affairs for the company.

Greenfield has said the export facility will hire 100 employees with an average salary of $75,000 a year, and will produce more than $300 million in tax revenue a year for the parish and state, despite tax breaks it is being provided by the Port of South Louisiana.

The planning commission decision was the latest in a long line of controversial efforts to rezone the property.

The land was previously changed from residential to heavy industrial zoning in 1990 as the site for a rayon manufacturing plant that would have been owned by Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics group. That effort was abandoned.

The parish president at the time, the late Lester Millet Jr., was convicted of money laundering, extortion and racketeering in connection with the Formosa deal. Millet was found to have shared in a commission on the property in exchange for his help in getting it rezoned.

Joy and sister Jo Banner, who founded the Descendants Project, filed suit to have the 1990 zoning change revoked, citing Millet’s corruption conviction.

In August 2023, a 40th Judicial District judge ruled the 1990 rezoning by the parish council was improper, but because it wasn’t first approved by the planning commission as required under the parish charter. That decision restored the zoning to residential.

After first attempting to affirm the initial zoning change after that decision, the council requested the planning commission to reconsider the zoning change. As part of that process, a consultant for Greenfield argued that the commission should consider the Wallace community to be part of a much larger area included in the Wallace “Census Designated Place.”

Even though the Wallace homes are on individual lots much smaller than an acre and within 2,000 feet of the proposed industrial area, using that method, the report determined that the average size of home lots was greater than 1 acre. That meant the zoning request could use a 300-foot buffer instead of the 2,000-foot buffer used for other industrial properties.

It’s that reasoning, the Banners told the commission, that could be used by industries to locate next to existing residential areas in future rezoning requests.

On Wednesday, Greenfield's Van Davis said structures on the project site would be at least 500 feet from residences.

“Including a 10 foot fence line and the required tree line, Greenfield’s silos will be at least 500 feet from our closest residential neighbor,” she said.

In an interview on Tuesday, Joy Banner said opponents of the rezoning were reviewing whether to challenge the decision in court.

The project must also still win approvals from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has conducted an initial review that said the grain terminal would lead to adverse effects at five of 20 historic places in the parish.

"We are still evaluating the permit application, including the engineering and environmental assessments, as well as evaluating the effects to historic properties as required by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act," said Corps spokesperson Ricky Boyett. "We do not have a decision timeline at this point."

Van Davis with Greenfield said Tuesday that company officials were to meet with the Corps about the permits this week, and no other legal issues face the project.