BY SARA PAGONES:
Apr 29, 2019
St. Tammany Parish has set aside 1,200 wooded acres off U.S. 190 near Mandeville to be preserved as undeveloped land that will be used partly to offset wetlands lost to road construction and other public works projects, officials announced Monday.
The Cane Bayou Mitigation Bank, as the area is to be known, will save taxpayers money by greatly reducing what is now the high cost of wetlands mitigation, Parish President Pat Brister said at a news conference.
Until now, under federal rules, the parish has had to buy credits from private wetlands banks when public projects affect land that is designated as wetlands by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Available credits are scarce and are becoming more expensive, Brister said, pegging the cost as more than $50,000 per acre.
More than half the land in St. Tammany Parish is designated as wetlands, Brister said, with three rivers and several substantial bayous crossing its 850 square miles.
While those are natural assets, they also put limits on growth and development, she said, presenting a dilemma to a rapidly growing parish that is expected to be the third most populous in the state by 2020.
The mitigation bank will allow the parish to provide its own credits when a new road or other project requires an offset for loss of wetlands. It will charge itself far less: $6,000 per credit, as opposed to market value, which can be up to $22,000 per credit. The payments will go into the parish’s capital fund, making it essentially a financial wash.
The parish will not sell credits to other entities, Brister said, but will use them only for public works projects, typically road construction and drainage projects.
A little over half of the mitigation bank’s land, or about 690 acres, is composed of wetlands.
The number of mitigation credits required for any given project varies, parish spokesman Ronnie Simpson said, because it depends on the quality of wetlands that are affected by a given project.
Chief Administrative Officer Kelly Rabalais said it’s not an acre-to-acre formula but usually more like 2.7 acres for an acre of wetlands that’s affected.
St. Tammany bought the land from the state years ago, Simpson said, but the amount it spent and the date were not immediately available.
A gravel road extending back from Monteleone Junior High leads to the densely wooded land, part of which abuts the campus of the former Southeast Louisiana Hospital, now also owned by the parish. Another portion of the wetlands bank is on a 203-acre piece of land northwest of Pelican Park.
Wetlands play an important role in the health of the overall environment by improving water quality, reducing the impact of floods and offering critical habitat to certain species of fish and animals, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The purpose of a mitigation bank is to offset the loss of those functions, and in order to further that goal, there are strict limits on what can be done on the land, Simpson said. For example, the parish might be allowed to put in nature trails but not bridges.
It took five years to navigate the regulatory process needed to establish the mitigation bank, Brister said, calling it a sometimes tedious process.
“My administration has always made protecting the natural beauty of our parish a priority,” she said. “The dedication of this preservation and mitigation project is a testament to that ongoing priority.”