Friday, May 25, 2007

Fifty-Three Weeks Ago Tonight

If you turned on a New Orleans television channel, you almost certainly saw a commercial in which Nagin said to ask yourself why his opponent's campaign contributors were giving him (Landrieu) money. With that in mind, I looked at the list of Nagin donors (sorry, can't find a working link) and saw names like AMID Landfill, AMID/Metro Partnerships, Metro Disposal and Durr Construction. In addition to Metro's "very lucrative" (Nagin's term) garbage collection contract, all four of those firms have an interest in the Old Gentilly Landfill that appeared in today's Picayune:
The Rev. Vien Nguyen, pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church in eastern New Orleans, sent a letter this week to members of the City Planning Commission asking them to seek the closure of the landfill because it lacks a conditional-use permit.

Such permits are required of all landfills except those that were in existence when the city's zoning law was passed in the 1970s. As it happens, a landfill was operating at the Old Gentilly site when the zoning law was enacted. But that landfill closed for about 20 years before the current dump opened after Hurricane Katrina.

The Planning Commission has yet to consider Nguyen's letter. But Mayor Ray Nagin's administration has taken the position that because the site has always had a landfill on it, the use is "grandfathered in" and no conditional-use permit is needed.


The old landfill, an unregulated dump, was ordered shut down by state regulators in 1982. When it was open, the landfill would have been considered a "legal nonconforming use" under the zoning law. Such cases typically involve corner groceries or barrooms in residential areas, according to Tommy Milliner, a lawyer who has handled many zoning cases.

However, once the landfill closed in the 1980s, it would have lost that status, in Milliner's opinion. To reopen, he said, it would be required to obtain a conditional-use permit allowing a use that conflicts with the area's zoning.

"If they don't operate, they lose their use," Milliner said.

(yet another)Nagin spokesman David Robinson-Morris said it's the city's position that the landfill "was never technically 'closed.' "

The argument apparently rests on the fact that the landfill was ordered closed -- and stopped accepting trash as a result -- but had not completed the closure process required by the state, which involved placing a layer of clay atop it. During the 1990s, New Orleans voters approved a bond issue that in part was to pay for the clay cap, but the work was never finished.

But for the purposes of zoning, city law offers definitions of "open" and "closed" that have nothing to do with state environmental law.

"The casual, intermittent or illegal use of land or buildings shall not be sufficient to establish and maintain the existence of a nonconforming use," the zoning law says. "In order to provide for the continuation of a nonconforming use, it must be opened for business a minimum of four hours per day, five days per week."

The "yet another," before Nagin spokesman, didn't appear in the Picayune. Another item that didn't appear in the Picayune was the fact that Durr, in addition to being a partner in AMID Landfill, had the contract for the clay cap.

I have no idea which side is correct about the legal issues, but I do know that the Nagin administration has shown questionable judgement about the operation of another city landfill -- judgement so questionable that it was featured on the NBC News segment "The Fleecing of America." In the interest of transparency, and to avoid another embarrassment, it might be a good idea to demand a garbage dump document dump.

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