Charred beams still protrude from a voided window on the front of the old Plaquemines ParishCourthouse in Pointe a la Hache nine years after an arsonist torched the building. The brick walls contain an open-air interior that abounds with plant life.
On Oct. 22, Plaquemines voters face a decision about how to move forward from the 2002 calamity. The ballot includes a measure to move the official parish seat, and by definition the future home of a still-to-be rebuilt permanent courthouse, from the tiny east bank enclave that hosted the courthouse for generations to the West Bank population center of Belle Chasse.
The measure faces a high hurdle, needing a two-thirds vote to succeed, but backers say it makes tremendous sense to locate the courthouse closer to most residents and on ground less vulnerable to extreme flooding. The burned-out remains suffered a deep inundation after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Residents of Pointe a la Hache, however, argue the issue is less about convenience than about respect for history, respect for their community and the principle that no corner of the parish deserves to be neglected.
“The county seat is supposed to be right where it is,” said Virgie Encalade, 72, a lifelong resident who works at DJ’s One Stop, a lunch counter, grocery and convenience store that serves as the town’s sole business. “The location has been there. It’s a historical site.”
The courthouse bestowed visibility on the little town hugging the Mississippi River levee, she said. It attracted people, interest and business. She argued backers of the change fail to give her community sufficient credit for its resiliency after disasters. People are returning, she said.
“It’s like they want to take us off the map,” said her daughter-in-law Rochelle Encalade, 44, also a lifelong resident. She said she finds it telling that the parish is building a new prison nearby for $89 million, suggesting other communities wouldn’t want that.
Still, history and emotions shouldn’t decide the future shape of the parish, argued Norris Babin, co-publisher of The Plaquemines Gazette and founder of a political action committee to support moving the seat to Belle Chasse.
“No part of the parish should be abandoned,” Babin said. But, he said, “it’s important that we look at making our decision today for the next 100 years.”
Center of gravity shifts
More than a century ago when the courthouse was established, Babin said, Pointe a la Hache was the most populous part of Plaquemines. It continued as the parish seat by tradition and law, but the West Bank long ago surpassed it in population. “The landscape has changed,” he said.
Proponents are circulating census data showing that Pointe a la Hache has about 187 residents to Belle Chasse’s 12,679. Out of the entire 23,042 population of Plaquemines, 92 percent is on the West Bank.
Those residents would have to take a ferry to reach a Pointe a la Hache courthouse for jury duty, court hearings, mortgage documents, marriage licenses, criminal documents, tax payments and more. Any problem with ferry service, Babin argues, would disrupt the court’s ability to function.
Proponents also argue the town’s location presents a much higher risk of flooding than Belle Chasse. They say a new courthouse on the site of the old one would need to be elevated 18 feet, adding to construction costs.
And they say the potential site in Belle Chasse is more spacious, featuring 342 acres that also could include a hub for other government services, compared with 15 acres in Pointe a la Hache.
Even before the fire, Plaquemines officials proposed moving the parish seat, with a ballot initiative in 2001 that failed because it lacked two-thirds support. Additional attempts in 2003 and 2004 also failed. Those measures proposed moving the courthouse to three different West Bank locations. The 2011 version is the first to name Belle Chasse.
“It’s time to get on with life and build something, because we’ve got to get out of recovery mode,” Babin said.
The court and related buildings have used temporary accommodations since the 2002 fire and Katrina.
District Attorney Charles Ballay, who declines to endorse the move officially because he cannot push a position as an elected official, still argues for the benefits of a centralized government complex and said the temporary building that houses his office leaks and needs to be retired.
“It’s not built to the standard of a proper building,” he said. “It’s not the best way to work.”
Maj. John Marie, spokesman for the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office, also said officials there are eager to consolidate their scattered operations into a single Belle Chasse center that would include space for enhanced services, such as a helipad the Sheriff’s Office would own, freeing it from using private facilities to launch helicopters.
Another lifelong Pointe a la Hache resident, 66-year-old Gary Barthelemy, argued it would be better to locate a new courthouse near the new prison.
“Why build a courthouse on the West Bank?” Barthelemy asked. “The prison is on the east bank. You’ve got to transport prisoners. That doesn’t make any sense. The people have no voice. We have no say-so at all.”
Marie said the Sheriff’s Office would build a lockup in Belle Chasse for processing prisoners who need to appear in court.
The shell of the courthouse, meanwhile, seems to stand as a symbol, for some residents, of an era slipping away. A stone on the front reads “Rebuilt 1915” and lists the members of the building committee.
In 2007, James Chancey of Gretna received an eight-year sentence in federal prison after pleading guilty to setting the structure ablaze. Prosecutors said he did it to destroy evidence in cases against customers of his Gretna motorcycle shop.
“Every time you look and see what happened, it’s so discouraging,” Virgie Encalade said about the ruins. “It’s an eyesore for everybody.”
There are many concerned citizens of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana that have lived on the east bank of Plaquemines for their entire lives. For generations, have watched the east side of the river regress. The area which once flourished with businesses and residents has now turned into a community of few. This community, however, still plays a vital role in the financial stability of this parish.
I cannot believe that there is going to be another election for the relocation of the county seat. This relocation has been placed on the ballot three times. I cannot understand how this can be placed on the ballot for a fourth time. I know of no other election that has been placed on the ballot so many times, due to the wishes of a select few. This action should be illegal.
If the excuse for this fourth election is the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, this is not a legitimate excuse. History shows that a slight shift in a hurricane’s path can cause just as much destruction on the west side of Plaquemines Parish as it can on the east side of Plaquemines Parish. The subject of flooding was brought to attention. Belle Chasse floods during large amounts of rainfall. Pointe-ala-Hache has never had that type of flooding problem.
Many are not aware of the fact that the property on which that courthouse lies goes back to the original owner if the property is not used for the county seat. Say goodbye to that historic site.
I have no personal financial interest in the placement of the courthouse. I own no business that will benefit from the placement of the courthouse, and I do not work for Plaquemines Parish. I know, however, that this decision is unjust.
I ask this question, “If this election would have resulted in the relocation of the courthouse, would another election be considered?”
Contact a Plaquemines Parish Attorney today: Harold E. Weiser III at 504-358-2273
Parish seat stays put
It will be up to the Plaquemines Parish Council to decide what happens next with a new parish courthouse. A measure that would have moved the parish seat from Pointe a la Hache on the east bank to bustling Belle Chasse on the West Bank was defeated a fourth time, when the issue failed to garner the required two-thirds level of support under the state Constitution.
Norris Babin, who co-founded a political action committee to support the move, said he believes crosscurrents in this election season led to the proposition’s failure. Winning that high level of support, Babin argued, would require a unified and concerted effort by all Plaquemines elected officials.
But Hingle’s criminal charges, stemming from allegations he took bribes from a contractor, helped draw attention elsewhere, Babin said. Some of the candidates who launched campaigns for sheriff after Hingle announced in August that he was forgoing a re-election campaign took positions against the courthouse move, Babin said.
At the same time, Parish President Billy Nungesser was waging a heated campaign for lieutenant governor, which he lost to Jay Dardenne.
“There was a lot of energy that wasn’t available for it,” Babin said. “If our leaders aren’t together on it, it’s going to be a lot harder for other people to follow.”
While advocates such as Babin argued the population center of Belle Chasse offered a more practical location for a new courthouse as a permanent replacement for the building an arsonist burned in 2002 and still sits in ruins in Pointe a la Hache, residents of much smaller east bank communities opposed the move, arguing instead for a revival of the historic location and economic boost to their part of the parish. Babin said the east bank opponents also enjoyed backing from residents in southern parts of the parish far from Belle Chasse.
Next steps for courthouse
The next move on the issue might belong to the Parish Council, which could decide whether to start building a new courthouse in Pointe a la Hache, Babin said, or keep trying to change the location while the courts operate from temporary accommodations in Belle Chasse.
Saturday marked the fourth time in the past decade that a proposal to move the Plaquemines Parish seat failed for lack of the two-thirds support. Babin said he has no plans to challenge the constitutional provision setting the bar so high. It probably serves a healthy purpose of sparing parish seat locations from destabilizing rounds of political ping-pong, he said.
“Now we have had four elections, and how much longer do we drag it out?” Babin said. “We need to get on with life.”
Contact a Plaquemines Parish Attorney today: Harold E. Weiser III at 504-358-2273