Public Lab Research note

Zoning and Corruption in St. John the Baptist Parish

by caitlion | March 19, 2022 19:27 19 Mar 19:27 | #30158 | #30158

When public officials break our trust, we often see them and their actions in a different light. And when public officials really betray our trust, to the tune of corruption, money laundering, and insider deals, everything they accomplished is now suspect and should be searched for hidden motives. Lester Millet is one of those types of officials. While serving as Parish President for St. John the Baptist Parish, Millet was finding ways to enrich and involve himself at every turn. One of his crooked decisions from 1990 is still haunting the parish today.

While the fight against the Sunshine Project, the massive industrial complex in the 5th District of St. James Parish is currently waging, Formosa has eyed the River Parishes for some time. In the late 1980s, they sought to open a rayon pulp factory in the area. (This factory would have discharged something like 43 million gallons of wastewater and shredded through 8,000 tons of wood per day.) There was a large tract of available land, zoned industrial, that was owned by Shell, but the price was higher than Formosa was willing to pay. Lester Millet wanted Formosa to come to the River Parishes, and he began setting in place everything he could to clear their way.

At the time, what is now the Whitney Plantation was owned by the Barnes family. It was zoned as residential, and had not yet been developed into a museum. There were many smaller tracts of land around the plantation as well, which would need to be bought out to establish a buffer zone for the facility. Lester Millet paid a visit to the Barneses, and convinced them to sell the Whitney Plantation to Formosa. Additionally, Millet named a friend of his to be the real estate broker in the transaction. Millet also insisted that he would receive half of the broker’s commission from the sale. Formosa agreed to the sale, conditional that the land would be rezoned industrial, and that Formosa could also acquire the land surrounding the plantation.

In preparation for the sale, which would line his own pocket by at least $200,000, Millet waged a campaign to force those surrounding homeowners to sell their land. The Whitney plantation and the surrounding tracts of land were then rezoned as industrial through an ordinance from the St. John the Baptist Parish Council in April of 1990. Formosa purchased the land through a subsidiary later that month.

However, due to excellent organizing and the requirement of further environmental analysis for the project, the proposed Formosa rayon plant was never constructed.The Whitney Plantation was instead developed into one of the most powerful museums to the experience of enslaved people, and Millet’s corrupt actions landed him in federal prison. But the Descendants Project reminds us all that they, the “descendants” of the people forced to sell their land, are still here. Their may have subsided over the decades, but it was brought fresh again when plans to establish industry on their former homes came to light.

The Descendant’s Project is seeking to declare the rezoning “an absolute nullity because it derogates from laws enacted for the protection of the public interest.” The derogation here is that Lester Millet made this decision in a corrupt manner to enrich himself, instead of doing so to benefit the parish as a whole. In Louisiana law, actions that are absolutely null have no effects; therefore, if the rezoning order is found to be absolutely null, then it will be as if the rezoning never happened, and the land will immediately revert to residential and agricultural status. Their current suit asks the court to “consider the process by which the ordinance was adopted, which was thoroughly and completely poisoned with fraud, gross abuse of power, and bad faith, in violation of the Parish’s own laws, as well as federal and state laws prohibiting corruption and conflicts of interest.”

Formosa (who is not involved in the current suit) seems to agree with the Descendants Project. Formosa sold the Whitney Plantation site in 2007, but not with industrial zoning as the 1990 ordinance stated; it was marked as residential as it had been prior to 1990. (There have been no related ordinances for that land from the St. John Parish Council since that crooked rezoning in 1990.) If Formosa thought then that the rezoning didn’t apply, and this was never challenged at the time, the Descendants Project should also be able to challenge industry moving in on what seems to be residential zoned land. In the more than 30 years since the deal, this land has become cane field, and has not been used for any industrial purposes. The proposed grain elevator on this site should not be allowed to use the byproducts of wrongdoing to sneak around the will of the community.

In a mysterious wrinkle, the page in which the surveying of all the properties to determine the exact extent of the rezoning has been ripped from the parish act book. Someone wanted to keep more details of this whole affair a secret, and piecing together the whole affair may be impossible since Lester Millet died in 2021. His actions continue to affect the lives of many today, but for justice, they ought to be buried with him.



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