Orange Co. struggles with landowner, veterans
Orange County Commissioners had some tough decisions to make at a meeting Monday, Aug. 5. Items on the agenda included a request by Orange County resident Henry R. “Sonny” Stevenson Jr. to “grandfather” a levee on his property, and filling a position at the Orange County Veterans’ Office, a request made by the office’s director, Gene Smith.
Item 6 of the meeting agenda was tabled after some discussion. Stevenson, who owns the Parkwood Land Company, requested that commissioners approve a measure grandfathering a levee on his property, exempting it “from requirements outlined in the Orange County Flood Prevention Order.” Stevenson’s attorney Charles “Chuck” Kibler spoke on his behalf. Kibler provided handouts to the commissioners, including a letter drafted by the Department of the Army, Galveston District, Corps of Engineers North Evaluation Unit Leader Bruce Bennett from April 17, 2007. The letter begins, “This office received a request to repair an existing levee on a property located northeast of the intersection of the Neches River and Interstate 10. Based on our review of the project, we have determined that you may proceed with the repair of the existing levee as proposed in your December 11, 2006 letter. …” In the letter, Bennett stipulates the Parkwood Land Company must comply with Nationwide Permit (NWP) regulations during its repairs.
“Since the levee was built prior to the inception of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act (CWA) and Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 plus the fact that jurisdictional activities that have occurred prior to July 19, 1977, are authorized (grandfathered) by the NWP, the levee is considered to be previously-authorized and can be repaired pursuant to NWP 3.”
Kibler said Stevenson’s problems started when FEMA re-designated his property as a “floodway” after a study subsequent to Hurricanes Rita and Ike, so no fill can be brought in to make improvements to the levee. And without the improvements, Stevenson says the property could not be re-designated for business use.
Orange County Judge Carl Thibodeaux asked Environmental and Health Code Compliance Director Joel Ardoin, “If we grandfather this in, how does it affect the Orange County Flood Prevention Order with the federal government?”
“They are just saying we cannot bring fill in there,” Ardoin responded. “You guys, as the court, you can do that because FEMA is going to look at it and say this is Orange County’s program to do with what you want to the program. However, if you don’t follow their rules, you get penalized for that.”
“Who gets penalized?” Pct. 2 Commissioner Owen Burton asked.
“The county gets penalized,” Ardoin answered. “The flood insurance rates can go up. Of course, worst-case scenario, they could just pull the plug on the program for violations against their rules.”
“Have we ever gotten any clarification on that?” Pct. 4 Commissioner Jody Crump asked. “Because FEMA is not going to come forward. They won’t be in attendance at this meeting. We don’t really know what type of punishment, if any, would be in effect.”
“Yes,” Ardoin argued. “It states in there if you don’t follow their rules, this could possibly happen.”
“Mmm-hmmm, the National Flood Insurance Program.”
Crump said the levee had been there for more than 100 years and seemed to disagree with FEMA’s restrictions in this instance since the Army Corps of Engineers grandfathered the levee per its correspondence from 2007.
Pct. 1 Commissioner David Dubose expressed reservations regarding the grandfathering of the levee. He said his precinct was hit hard by flooding, and he could not justify jeopardizing the county’s flood insurance.
Needing more information to make an educated decision, commissioners agreed to revisit the issue at next week’s meeting scheduled Aug. 12.
In the meantime, Stevenson’s plans to develop his land and utilize it for business purposes are at a standstill.
In other matters, Veterans’ Office Director Gene Smith received approval for an agenda item naming Doug Childress as the new assistant veterans services officer, a position being vacated by Mike Powell effective Aug. 16. Without hesitation, commissioners unanimously approved the measure. However, when the next agenda item came up, Pct. 3 Commissioner John Banken balked when asked for approval from Smith to advertise for the veterans benefits coordinator position being vacated by Childress.
“Judge, I am not in favor of filling this position, and I’ll make a motion that we freeze all hiring,” Banken said.
When Commissioner Crump asked if the items were related, Thibodeaux responded, “Mr. Smith is requesting an additional hire plus another where he will have four veterans benefits coordinators.”
“That’s down from ’11,” Smith said, explaining previous cuts had been made. “If you cut us any deeper, it will hurt the office. We can’t cover the hours that we keep.”
The following agenda item requested by Smith was for approval to promote Veterans Services Office employee Charlotte Burrell to veterans benefit coordinator.
“You’re asking to pay areceptionist a veterans services officer salary,” Thibodeaux said. “That’s not going to work.”
Smith told commissioners Burrell did more than just receptionist work. She answered veterans’ questions regarding services and received extensive training.
“This young lady does a lot more than just answer phones,” Smith retorted. “She is basically the office manager. All we are wanting to do is try to justify equal pay for equal work.”
Thibodeaux suggested that they just promote her to the coordinator position and not advertise to fill the position vacated by Childress. Smith said he needed her more as the office manager than the coordinator.
“I think we are missing the boat here, gentlemen,” Commissioner Dubose said. “We’re talking about our veterans.”
“Well, I understand,” Banken began.
“No, you don’t understand,” Dubose snapped back. “We have the least amount of complaints than we have ever had since we have had these people at that office. We have more veterans coming back now, and we have more Vietnam Veterans going there needing help.”
“Honestly, if we do not replace him we will have to shut the office down at unscheduled times,” Smith asserted.
“We are not going to take threats,” Thibodeaux said.
“Listen, I have to tell you guys,” Dubose said. “Veterans give up a whole bunch already.”
He motioned to accept Item 11 to approve advertising for Childress’ replacement. The motion was seconded by Burton and passed 3-2 with Crump and Banken voting against the measure. The following agenda item that would classify Burrell as a veterans benefit coordinator died due to a lack of motion.