Paradise Lost?

by Nathan Stubbs

Ideas for the publicly acclaimed Camellia Green project ' including a recent eyebrow-raising Joey Durel suggestion that infuriated residents ' remain stuck on the drawing board.

In the summer of 2004, the Camellia Green project was touted as a progressive solution to a politically sensitive issue. When the city expropriated and demolished more than 70 homes between Johnston Street and the Vermilion River to clear a path for Camellia Boulevard, many area residents felt the new four-lane thoroughfare gutted their neighborhood and feared an imminent onslaught of traffic and noise. But in paving the way for Camellia, the city also was left with some 46 acres of newly vacant land bordering the boulevard north of the river. The city promised a sound wall to residents, along with assurances of no new development along the stretch of land on Camellia where residents' homes had been bulldozed.

Then Camellia Green ' proposed by local attorney Hank Perret and the Perret Foundation ' emerged as an even better alternative. The idea was to create an idyllic park setting along Camellia with an elaborate landscape project including an arboretum, earth berms and ornamental segments of brick wall. Original designs funded by the Perret Foundation included a bell tower to commemorate cancer victims and a bike path that would wind through the memorial park leading up to a canoe launch on the river. Not only would Camellia Green provide area residents with the sound abatement and buffer they sought from Camellia Boulevard, but the project would also provide natural drainage and help filter storm water into the Vermilion River. If that wasn't enough, the LSU landscape architect that designed Camellia Green, Buck Abbey, assured Lafayette Consolidated Government that an $800,000 state and federal grant could cover half the cost of the project.

Three years later, Camellia Green remains stuck on the drawing board. Grant money supposedly available for the project has been both delayed and drastically reduced, and Abbey is no longer on the job. And at a recent meeting with area residents, LCG President Joey Durel even suggested that his friend and River Ranch developer Robert Daigle could redevelop residential homes or condominiums on that land.

Dee Stanley, LCG chief administrative officer, says the city is now moving ahead with plans to construct a wall for residents and hopes to begin construction on the 90-day project sometime in July. The 6-foot wooden fence with brick columns will run along residents' property lines, rather than directly flanking Camellia Boulevard as a traditional sound wall would. LCG officials admit the fence will serve more of a privacy function for residents than actual sound abatement. Spanning 4,700 feet from Eastland Street to where land begins sloping down to meet the Vermilion River, the fence will not be continuous because some residents have opted not to have it along the back of their property. For those residents, LCG will instead spend an amount equivalent to the fencing costs on landscaping projects hedging their back yards.

The deal was reached at a meeting held almost a month ago with some 30 residents who live along the area. At that meeting, Durel also floated a controversial idea suggested to him by River Ranch developer Robert Daigle. Durel says Daigle and River Ranch architect Steve Oubre had previously discussed the development potential of the Camellia green belt area.

"It was brought to me just as an idea," says Durel. "It was suggested as something that could be done in a nice way with a sound wall and a bike path, and it'd be something where the city could reap a couple of million dollars off the deal."

Daigle did not return a call for comment.

Durel says some type of development in that area was something that was always a possibility in his view, provided the residents were open to it.

"I'm one of those people who believe you put everything on the table," he says.

According to Ralph Young, a longtime resident of Camellia Drive who was at the meeting, reaction to Durel's proposal was far from enthusiastic. "He threw [the idea] out to the group, and everyone stood up," Young recalls. "It was not a popular move. It met with immediate opposition."

Rob Stevenson, the district's councilman who was also in attendance, described residents' reaction as "ugly," and says he had predicted as much. Prior to the meeting, Durel asked Stevenson if it would be all right to broach the idea to residents. "I said he could mention it as long as he told everyone that I had nothing to do with the idea," Stevenson recalls.

Young says several people were offended since many of their neighbors had lost their homes to the city due to Camellia's expansion. The city, under the previous administration, had also promised the land would not be re-developed.

Further inflaming the issue was perception of the city-parish president's cozy relationship with Daigle, whom he's known since high school. Earlier this year, Durel and River Ranch reached a deal in which the development constructed a private road leading up to Durel's home on Steiner Road. Durel insisted he was responsible for all costs for the road, which would be re-imbursed to River Ranch as part of a lucrative property sale between the two parties. Durel owns two acres of land adjacent to River Ranch along the Vermilion River that he plans to sell to Daigle. Earlier this year, Durel got the state ethics board to review both the land sale and the road deal. The board cleared Durel of any conflicts of interest.

Reflecting on his meeting with Camellia area residents, Durel says he never intended for a potential development to be any type of exclusive deal with River Ranch, and he noted at the meeting the city would have to follow all bid laws.

"I shouldn't have ever mentioned any names," Durel says. "Because [Daigle and Oubre] were just people who were thinking about ideas that may benefit the city. It was just two guys talking. Just the mention of River Ranch makes the hairs on the back of some people's necks stand up."

To Durel's credit, Young says that while the mayor did suggest development along the existing Camellia green belt, he didn't push the issue.

All parties now agree the issue is dead. "I think it was basically they don't trust government," says Durel. "They like saying that they didn't like losing the residences because it provided a lot of buffer for them, but I think they like living next to all that green space. A lot of people would pay a lot of money to live next to something like that."

As for Camellia Green, Stanley insists that idea is not being abandoned. However, LCG will be spending the $700,000 it had hoped to use as a local match for its Camellia Green grant on the new fence project. The grant itself remains in limbo.

Containing both federal Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Environmental Quality funds, Stanley says the grant has been held up since 2004 due to myriad state and federal program cuts and funding delays. When and if the grant ever does come through, it stands to be a greatly reduced amount. Stanley acknowledges that the Camellia Green plans will likely have to be scaled down to reflect the new funding realities. "We need to kind of go back to square one in that regard," he says. "Camellia Green can still take shape in between the fencing and the street, but it's going to have to be phased in within the limitations of the grant."

Hank Perret, who initially brought the Camellia Green project forward after being inspired by cancer memorial parks in other cities, says he's hopeful the idea can still take root.

"We certainly hope that in time the city will have the opportunity to implement the green space plan that was envisioned," he says. "We think that's what's best for the community."