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Wood Materials LLC v. City of Harahan

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fifth Circuit

December 19, 2018




          COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFF/APPELLEE, WOOD MATERIALS LLC, WOOD RESOURCES LLC L. Etienne Balart, Michael C. Drew, Remy J. Donnelly, Lauren C. Mastio

          Panel composed of Judges Susan M. Chehardy, Robert A. Chaisson, and John J. Molaison, Jr.


         Plaintiff-appellant, the City of Harahan (the "City"), seeks review of the trial court's May 4, 2018 judgment maintaining the exception of prescription in favor of defendants-appellees, Wood Materials, L.L.C. and Wood Resources, L.L.C. (the "Wood Companies"), and dismissing the City's reconventional demand seeking to enforce an alleged "use violation" against the Wood Companies with prejudice. For the following reasons, we affirm the trial court's judgment.


         This litigation involves the commercial composting activities of the Wood Companies, who operate a composting facility located in the Non-Urban Batture District (the "Batture"), which is situated within the City's corporate limits.[1] The facts in this matter are not in dispute. Since the 1960's, the Wood Companies have been involved in various activities at their industrial materials facility located on the Batture of the Mississippi River. Specifically, between the hours of 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., the Wood Companies perform dredging, excavating and selling of sand, mooring, and towing out of its facility within the Batture. In particular, the Wood Companies have been engaged in composting activities on their property since 2010.

         On December 19, 2011, the East Jefferson Levee District issued a construction permit to the Wood Companies for the construction of an "organic soil composting site" within the Batture. The operating permit, also issued on December 19, 2011 for the calendar year 2012, contained a "[d]escription of [p]ermitted [a]ctivity" that included "[c]onstruction and operation of sandpits and limestone stockpiles & organic soil composting." The operating permits subsequently issued to the Wood Companies for the calendar years 2013 through 2016 also describe composting activity as a permitted activity.

         In August 2012, the Wood Companies were hired by the City to store, grind, and dispose of trees and other organic debris left behind in the City following Hurricane Isaac. In order to fulfill its obligations under the contract, the Wood Companies collected and composted the hurricane debris at its facilities located within the Batture. In October 2012, the City paid the Wood Companies $23, 413.00 for the composting work they performed pursuant to the contract.

         On June 9, 2016, the Wood Companies filed a declaratory judgment action against the City with regard to the validity of Proposed Ordinance No. 2016-3. The Proposed Ordinance would, among other things, amend section XV of the City Zoning Ordinance ("CZO") to remove "barge mooring and holding facilities" from the permitted uses for the Batture and impose an hours-of-operation restriction. Specifically, the Wood Companies sought a declaration that its composting operations within the Batture constituted a nonconforming use in accordance with La. R.S. 9:5625, and that any attempt to hold the Wood Companies in violation of the CZO is prescribed by La. R.S. 9:5625(C) and the grandfather provision found in La. R.S. 9:5625(B).

         The City responded by filing a reconventional demand, which sought a declaration that the Wood Companies' operation of a composting facility within the Batture is prohibited by the CZO, and which sought injunctive relief enjoining the Wood Companies from continuing to operate the composting facility. In response to the City's reconventional demand, the Wood Companies raised the exception of prescription. Specifically, the Wood Companies argued that, based upon the City's concession that it had written notice of the Wood Companies' composting activities, that are now alleged to be violations of zoning and use regulations, no later than February 15, 2012, more than three years prior to filing suit on July 21, 2016, the City's right to enforce any alleged violation of the CZO regarding their composting operations had prescribed pursuant to La. R.S. 9:5625(C), which establishes a three-year prescriptive period for public instrumentalities within Jefferson Parish, including the City of Harahan.

         In opposition, the City argued that La. R.S. 9:5625(A)(3)-not La. R.S. 9:5625(C)-was the applicable provision for actions challenging zoning use regulation violations. Pursuant to La. R.S. 9:5625(A)(3), all municipalities (except the Parish of Orleans, the City of New Orleans and East Baton Rouge Parish) have five years from the date on which the municipality was first actually notified in writing of such violation in which to bring an action. Consequently, the City averred that its action against the Wood Companies had not prescribed.

         The Wood Companies' exception came for hearing on April 25, 2018. At the close of the hearing, the trial court took the matter under advisement. Thereafter, on May 4, 2018, the trial court issued judgment, with written reasons, maintaining the Wood Companies' exception and dismissing the City's reconventional demand against the Wood Companies with prejudice. The trial court determined that the City had actual notice in writing of the Wood Companies' alleged violation no later than October 2012, and, thus, under La. R.S. 9:5625(C), the City's suit brought more than three years later was prescribed.

         It is from this judgment that the City timely filed the instant appeal.


         On appeal, the City avers that the trial court erred: (1) in its interpretation of La. R.S. 9:5625 in concluding that the enforcement provisions set forth in La. R.S. 9:5625(C) apply to the City of Harahan; and (2) in failing to find that the five-year prescriptive period found in La. R.S. 9:5625(A)(3) controls this action, which period commenced from the date upon which the City's zoning authority received actual notice in writing of the Wood Companies' violation of the CZO's use regulation.


         Standard of Review and Statutory Construction

         The issues in this case turn on the proper interpretation of La. R.S. 9:5625. When the matter before the Court involves the interpretation of a statute, it is a question of law, and a de novo standard of review is applied. Red Stick Studio Dev., L.L.C. v. State ex rel. Dep't. of Econ. Dev., 10-0193 (La. 1/19/11), 56 So.3d 181, 187. Thus, we review the trial court's judgment under a de novo standard of review, without deference to the legal conclusions of the trial court below. Id.; Benjamin v. Zeichner, 12-1763 (La. 4/5/13), 113 So.3d 197, 201.

         In Benjamin, the Louisiana Supreme Court stated that "the function of statutory interpretation and the construction given to legislative acts rests with the judicial branch of the government." Id. The Court further explained the following regarding statutory interpretation:

The rules of statutory construction are designed to ascertain and enforce the intent of the Legislature. Legislation is the solemn expression of legislative will and, thus, the interpretation of legislation is primarily the search for the legislative intent. We have often noted the paramount consideration in statutory interpretation is ascertainment of the legislative intent and the reason or reasons which prompted the Legislature to enact the law. The starting point in the interpretation of any statute is the language of the statute itself. When a law is clear and unambiguous and its application does not lead to absurd consequences, the law shall be applied as written and no further interpretation may be made in search of the intent of the [L]egislature. However, when the language of the law is susceptible of different meanings, it must be interpreted as having the meaning that best conforms to the purpose of the law. Moreover, when the words of a law are ambiguous, their meaning must be sought by examining the context in which they occur and the text of the law as a whole. Further, the legislature is presumed to act with full knowledge of well-settled principles of statutory construction. [Citations omitted.]

Id. at 202. The object of the court in construing a statute is to ascertain the legislative intent and, where a literal interpretation would produce absurd consequences, the letter must give way to the spirit of the law and the statute construed so as to produce a reasonable result. Richard v. Hall, 03-1488 (La. 4/23/04), 874 So.2d 131, 149; SWAT 24 Shreveport Bossier, Inc. v. Bond, 00-1695 (La. 6/29/01), 808 So.2d 294, 302. A statute must be applied and interpreted in a manner that is logical and consistent with the presumed purpose and intent of the Legislature. Succession of Boyter, 99-0761 (La. 1/7/00), 756 So.2d 1122, 1129.

         Zoning is designed to foster improvements by confining certain classes of buildings and uses to certain localities without imposing undue hardship on property owners. City of New Orleans v. Elms, 566 So.2d 626, 628 (La. 1990). "The essence of zoning is territorial division in keeping with the character of the lands and structures and their peculiar suitability for particular uses, and the uniformity of use within the division. The traditional purpose of zoning is to reduce or eliminate the adverse effects of one type of land use on another by segregating different uses into different zoning districts." Id.

         Our jurisprudence clearly states that zoning by its nature is a legislative function, the authority for which flows from the police power of governmental bodies. King v. Caddo Parish Com'n, 97-1873 (La. 10/20/98), 719 So.2d 410, 418. La Const. art. VI, § 17 expressly grants the power to enact zoning regulations to all local governments. St. Charles Gaming Co., Inc. v. Riverboat Gaming, 94-2697 (La. 1/17/95), 648 So.2d 1310, 1316. La. R.S. 33:4721 provides, in part, that "[f]or the purpose of promoting health, safety, morals, or the general welfare of the community, the governing authority of all municipalities may regulate and restrict the height, number of stories, and size of structures, the percentage of lot that may be occupied, the size of yards, courts, and other open spaces, the density of population, and the location and use of the buildings, structures, and land for trade, industry, residence, or other purposes." Additionally, La. R.S. 33:4723 indicates that zoning regulations shall, among other things, "be made with reasonable consideration of the character of the district and its peculiar suitability for particular uses, and with a view to conserving the values of buildings and encouraging the most appropriate use of land throughout the municipality."

         With these legal precepts in mind, we examine the language of the statute, La. R.S. 9:5625, which provides:

5625. Violation of zoning restriction, building restriction, or subdivision regulation
A. (1) All actions civil or criminal, created by statute, ordinance, or otherwise, except those actions created for the purpose of amortization of nonconforming signs and billboards enacted in conformity with the provisions of R.S. 33:4722, which may be brought by parishes, municipalities, or their instrumentalities or by any person, firm, or corporation to require enforcement of and compliance with any zoning restriction, building restriction, or subdivision regulation, imposed by any parish, municipality, or an instrumentality thereof, and based upon the violation by any person, firm, or corporation of such restriction or regulation, must be brought within five years from the first act constituting the commission of the violation.
(2) Where a violation has existed for a period of two years prior to August 1, 1956, except those actions created for the purpose of amortization of nonconforming signs and billboards enacted in conformity with the provisions of R.S. 33:4722, the action must be brought within one year from and after August 1, 1956.
(3) With reference to violations of use regulations all such actions, civil or criminal, except those actions created for the purpose of amortization of nonconforming signs and billboards in conformity with the provisions of R.S. 33:4722, must be brought within five years from the date the parish, municipality, and the properly authorized instrumentality or agency thereof if such agency has been designated, first had been actually notified in writing of such violation.
(4) Except as relates to nonconforming signs and billboards, any prescription heretofore accrued by the passage of two years shall not be interrupted, disturbed, or lost by ...

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