Officials: Cottage deadline likely not realistic

Published 4:29 pm Friday, November 16, 2007

Groundbreaking on a long-delayed project that will erect the first of more than 530 alternative residential units for hurricane victims likely won’t meet the Nov. 30 deadline set by Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

Jackson Barracks, slated as home for the first 75 “Louisiana Cottages” financed by a $74.5 million federal grant, needs a final environmental and historic inspection by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which Congress designated to oversee the grant program, officials said Wednesday.

Officials with the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency, tapped by Blanco to oversee the program, and principals with Cypress Realty Partners, the consortium contracted to develop Louisiana’s cottage sites, said the state has submitted to federal authorities all the necessary paperwork on Jackson Barracks, headquarters of the Louisiana National Guard.

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Diane Perry, a spokeswoman for FEMA’s New Orleans office, confirmed that federal regulators are reviewing details of the Jackson Barracks site, which has already cleared a separate environmental inspection in advance of $200 million in other federally financed construction.

She offered no timeline on when the latest review will conclude but said it was unlikely to happen before Blanco’s deadline.

“I don’t think that’s realistic,” she said.

Congress established the housing grant program to test possible replacements for the travel trailers and mobile homes now used to shelter people displaced by disasters.

Blanco set the November deadline for groundbreaking in a letter to housing agency President Milton Bailey, threatening to reassign the project to another department should construction not begin by the end of the month. She accused Bailey’s staff of miring the project in “red tape.”

Kimberly Robinson, a Blanco adviser who attended Wednesday’s LHFA board meeting, said the administration is aware of the review and awaits FEMA action.

Chairman Wayne Woods insisted that tensions among the project’s players have subsided now that all involved have aired their grievances concerning months-long wrangling over the budget, contracts and subcontracts necessary to carry out the program.

“It’s time to move forward and do the right thing for this state,” Woods said.

Cypress spokesman Ben Dupuy agreed: “We look forward to building cottages.”

Mississippi has placed more than 500 occupants as part of its $281 million share of the program, with plans for at least 2,500 and as many as 5,500 more housing units.

Besides the 75 residences at Jackson Barracks, which are reserved for employees of the state Military Department, the agency has approved plans for 85 units at a Lake Charles site and 80 units in Baton Rouge.

Cypress originally proposed planned communities in Abbeville and New Orleans. Varying factors have stymied land acquisition, and Woods said the housing agency is now investigating the possibility of identifying sites for single units rather than clustering the cottages.

Woods, who also serves as a member of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, said the housing agency is in conversations with NORA about placing cottages on some of the thousands of parcels that are or will be controlled by the authority.