Written by Jack Davis
“This case is about the public’s right to know,” lawyer Jamie Gibbs Pleune told a federal judge in New Orleans on Wednesday.
The public was kept in the dark, she said, by the federal, state, and city government planners of a huge two-hospital complex that would replace a 67-acre neighborhood and more than 160 historic buildings.
The attorney representing the National Trust for Historic Preservation described government officials illegally failing to consider and disclose all the costs before they began their “leap first, look later” approach to spending $2 billion to insert the suburban-sprawl hospitals into the densely urban Mid-City National Historic District.
Pleune, from the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown Law School, was asking U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon to say “yes” to the National Trust’s request to stop all land acquisition -- until proper planning has been done, alternatives considered and major costs disclosed.
She was arguing before a full courtroom during a much-anticipated hearing on the National Trust’s request for summary judgment in the lawsuit it had filed last spring. The lawsuit directly challenges the federal government position that the hospitals – the most expensive development project ever in New Orleans (other than the construction of the levee system) – would have “no significant impact” on historic properties or other resources.
The lawsuit charged that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Veterans Affairs violated the National Environmental Policy Act when they fractured a required environmental review into multiple pieces in a way that made it meaningless and misleading.
She said the decision to destroy the neighborhood to build the hospitals might not have been made if the public had been told the true long-term impact on such things as drainage in surrounding neighborhoods, the cost of relocating utilities, and the impact of abandoning older hospitals in the city’s ailing Central Business District, including the Art Deco landmark Charity Hospital.
She illustrated how segmenting the environmental review into separate “tiers” deprived the public of a true and timely understanding of the impacts:
At a public meeting to review the “Tier 1” site selection, citizens might ask why the sites for the new hospitals were so much bigger than the sites of the old hospitals. They would be told that question was to be answered in the Tier 2 review months or years later. In the Tier 2 review of hospital designs, citizens might ask about the impact on the Central Business District of abandoning the existing hospitals. They would be told this was a question for Tier 3, to be conducted at some unspecified future time.
Opposing Pleune were lawyers from the U.S. Department of Justice, the State of Louisiana and the City of New Orleans. They argued that the urgent efforts to return healthcare to residents and veterans after Hurricane Katrina required them to select the site even before they knew the complete impact. The attorney for the state – which asked to intervene in the case, along with the City - also questioned whether the National Trust had sufficient “standing” to challenge the project, in a mocking presentation that was met with silence from the court. And, while FEMA argued that the Trust’s lawsuit was premature, the state argued that it was filed too late – a contradiction noted by the judge.
Pleune suggested that the badly needed hospitals could be opened more quickly if their planners would follow the spirit of NEPA, using it to anticipate difficulties that could otherwise delay construction.
Judge Fallon asked a substantial number of questions of all the lawyers, and let them talk as long as they wished, altogether more than two hours. He held up the large stack of briefs filed in the case and said he had to study them further before making a ruling.
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Jack Davis is a New Orleans resident and a trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.