State environmental regulators plan to fine a Baton Rouge real estate developer for allowing dirt from an Ascension Parish construction site to flow into a neighborhood detention pond , which residents say could make flooding worse.
The proposed fine of $5,550 would be the second penalty imposed by the Department of Environmental Quality on Dantin Bruce Development for runoff from the construction of the Oak Grove Townhouses along La. 42 in 2019 and 2020.
For the past few years, residents of the nearby neighborhood of Willow Lake have complained that dirt from the 92-home project was filling their community lake. They feared it would increase the risk of flooding for homes along the banks of the pond.
If formalized, the civil penalty of $5,500 is considered “moderate” for the degree of impact the alleged violations had on property and human health, but “minor” for their severity, according to the matrix of severity of DEQ.
The runoff dispute led to a lawsuit by the Willow Lake Homeowners Association last year against Oak Grove Townhomes, Dantin Bruce and the parish government, which has since been partially settled.
A larger scale flood problem
The struggle also highlights the lingering question of how to maintain stormwater retention ponds like the one at Willow Lake – and who should be in charge.
Man-made ponds proliferated in Ascension and other low-lying areas in the Baton Rouge area. They generate dirt to elevate homes on slabs while creating a place where potential floodwaters can safely collect.
Runoff normally increases when woods and pastures are replaced with asphalt, concrete and roof shingles from new communities and businesses. The ponds are meant to hold potential flood waters and release them slowly, preventing homes from being flooded.
But, unlike most streets, drainpipes or other infrastructure, ponds are left to landowners, not local governments, for their long-term maintenance.
Silt and overgrowth in the dry detention pond at the Shadows of Manchac neighborhood in Prairieville prompted similar questions last year. Residents had demanded costly repairs to the private detention area.
Parish officials considered these repairs, but opted in January to first try to increase the capacity of the surrounding public underground drainage infrastructure. The work, estimated at $500,000, is expected to go out to public tender in August, a parish consulting engineer said in February.
A long-standing dispute
When the Oak Grove townhouses were approved several years ago, the parish government allowed the new neighborhood to send runoff from its new retention pond to the existing Willow Lake pond in exchange $100,000 from the proponent to improve drainage at Willow Lake.
These improvements have yet to occur. But, during the construction phase of Oak Grove, residents claimed that runoff dirt found its way into Willow Lake ponds, significantly reducing the depth of parts of them.
Residents cited aerial photographs and water measurements. DEQ inspectors made similar claims.
One of the reasons the owners were upset: the silt is no doubt their problem once it ends up in their private lake.
The runoff has prompted repeated complaints. In September, DEQ filed a potential penalty notice against Dantin Bruce following a 350-page report detailing inspections and alleged issues at Oak Grove.
The agency cited Dantin Bruce for letting his discharge permit expire and repeatedly failing to use silt controls and other measures to keep dirty runoff at bay even after settling similar violations in 2019 at Oak Grove. Dantin Bruce paid $1,000 to settle prior violations.
A spokesperson for Dantin Bruce declined to comment on Thursday.
Before the latest compliance action was filed, Dantin Bruce had conducted his own soil surveys of Willow Lake ponds under the direction of the parish government. A geotechnical contractor found that samples showed no siltation of the pond came from the Oak Grove construction site, according to documents filed by the DEQ.
In an August 2021 letter to DEQ about the finds, the company acknowledged that it mistakenly let its permit expire, but had made reasonable efforts to keep stormwater controls in place – although they tend to to fail over time. Dantin Bruce said he also hired a separate contractor to maintain the controls.
The company also noted that Willow Lake residents have been against Oak Grove since the project began. He pointed out that it had come under scrutiny from the parish government and the DEQ following complaints from citizens despite the soil discoveries.
DEQ went ahead with the compliance measure a month later anyway.
Under the proposed settlement, Dantin Bruce, through his development company, Oak Grove Townhomes LLC, would admit no wrongdoing.
DEQ announced the proposed settlement on its website on March 24, but the settlement was not officially released until April 14. Residents have 45 days from that date to submit comments on the settlement. Under state law, they can request a public hearing.
DEQ spokesman Greg Langley said the settlement had already been approved by the Louisiana attorney general’s office but had not been paid.
Megan Terrell, a lawyer for the Willow Lake Homeowners Association, said the association, Dantin Bruce and Oak Grove Townhomes settled the civil lawsuit in February “to the mutual satisfaction of the parties.”
When asked if the settlement had resulted in silt being removed from the subdivision pond, she replied, “Not yet.”
The claims against the parish government are still pending but are being resolved out of court, Terrell said.
Jean-Paul Robert, a parish prosecutor, declined to comment on Thursday.