Parking lot can’t be stopped, attorney for car shop says

DEIDRE CRUSE, Governmental Reporter

There is no legal way for residents of Plaquemine’s Historic District or the city to stop a car body shop owner from tearing down a 100-year-old Church Street house and erecting a parking lot for his business, attorney Tony Clayton said Monday.

“They’re not going to win it,” said Clayton, who represents Brent Bonadona, owner of Performance Auto. “The law is not on their side.”

Clayton won his argument on the demolition last week before District Judge William C. Dupont. At Clayton’s request, Dupont issued his written reasons for refusing the city’s request for an injunction against tearing the house down.

Dupont said the procedure the city used in adopting its Historic District ordinances was “fatally flawed.”

Mayor Mark A. “Tony” Gulotta said the city would not appeal Dupont’s ruling, but instead would follow the procedures the judge set out and re-enact the law, rather than face a possible court challenge on every issue.

“We feel like we have good grounds to appeal,” the mayor said. “They attacked the process. They didn’t attack the law.”

Clayton said he was preparing for an appeal, but hoped the city would not move ahead with it.

“The problem is that Plaquemine did not follow the law,” Clayton told the POST/SOUTH. “The Plaquemine Historic District is not a legal entity. The City has no authority to stop a property owner from tearing down a house.”

Clayton said his client has offered to sell the house for $1 to anyone who would move it from the Church Street lot.

But, he warned, the house has asbestos siding (an expensive abatement problem) and would cost some $400,000 to renovate.

“That house is in such an unsafe and dangerous condition that anyone, if they were going through it, would readily agree to tear it down,” Clayton said.

As for the parking lot, the attorney said he was prepared to research city law back to 1830.

“I don’t think they did their zoning right,” he said.

“They’re not going to be able to block him from doing it,” Clayton said. “We will file an injunction against them.”

The property in question is zoned as residential property, and Historic District residents who oppose the commercial expansion are preparing to fight a zoning change.

Bonadona has not yet filed an application to rezone the property as commercial, city officials said.

One local attorney said the city’s zoning code allows a business owner to develop a parking lot on property within 500 feet of an existing business.

Once the case is finished, Clayton said he would like to help the city rewrite the ordinances on the historic district.

“I will be happy to volunteer my time to meet with them,” he said. “I would love to sit down with the historic society.”

“Clayton understands what a historical district is all about,” the attorney said. “These people have to serve on my jury. I don’t want to p—s them off.”

In addition to his private law practice, Clayton is chief criminal prosecutor for 18th Judicial District Attorney Richard J. “Ricky” Ward Jr.

The Board of Selectmen revised the city’s zoning laws and Historic District ordinances last year, and in January appointed a new Historic Preservation Commission.

At last week’s meeting, the appointed the commission members to a new Historic Preservation Study Committee, charged with making a survey of the historic district and making suggestions for a proposed ordinance. The members are Charlene Bishop, Mark Thomas, Thomas Berger, Marylyn Breaux and Marianne Freeman.

Ultimately, the committee report will be filed with the Louisiana Preservation and Cultural Commission, the Louisiana Art Commission and others – as required by law – for their consideration and to obtain their advice.

Gulotta said he thought the best avenue for the city would be to readopt the ordinances and strengthen the law.

“This was really about zoning,”” he said. “It’s about people in neighborhoods having a say about what goes on in their neighborhoods.”

“I have never seen as many people come out on an issue in a long time,” the mayor said, adding that he thought the controversy had raised awareness of the city’s historic district and what was at stake.

“I was just amazed at the fight you people put up,” Selectman Ralph J. Stassi Jr. said. “I was amazed at what y’all done [sic].”

Stassi said it is important for the city to keep the historic district in tact.

“We have visitors come from all over because of the historic value of the city,” he said.

“This is for the City of Plaquemine,” said Selectman Lindon A. “Lin” Rivet Jr., who made the motion to establish the study committee. “We don’t want anyone to come in and destroy the historic district. There is much to preserve.”