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New commission stokes old fears: Some citizens concerned Oak Grove reservoir project still alive

Despite Gov. John Bel Edwards’ appointment of a new Washington Parish Reservoir Commission, at least one parish woman who has long opposed the Oak Grove reservoir project is still leery of the new commission.

“I was in defense mode for 14 years,” Jalon Pittman Beech said.

After Thursday’s news, she said she’s still disappointed.

“I feel like … none of the existing commissioners should have been reappointed,” she explained. Out of 11 commissioners, four are re-appointments. Those include former Bogalusa Mayor Charles Mizell, Bob Bateman, William Jenkins and D. Beryl Schilling.

Beech explained that she had hoped none of the members who had pushed for a reservoir in the Oak Grove area would be re-appointed. The idea was first floated in 2001, and since that time, the same commission had been slowly pushing for a reservoir that was not popular among some in the community.

Beech and others complained the process was opaque and homeowners worried their land would be taken against their will through eminent domain. In addition, they argued that some graves in the area would need to be moved.

In this year’s legislative session, State Sen. Beth Mizell authored a bill that would have killed the commission, but State Rep. Malinda White attached an amendment on the bill that kept the commission alive but also mandated that commission meetings would be listed on the parish government’s website and forbade the reservoir board from the acquiring land through eminent domain.

Yet Beech worries another state agency could take land on behalf of the project.

“I suppose if attorneys looked at it they could find a loophole so the Department of Transportation could expropriate land,” she said.

In fact, Charles Mizell said he believes it may still be possible to get a reservoir in the Oak Grove area.

“As far as I am concerned, we’re going to start from where the old board left off,” he said.

Mizell explained that the Oak Grove community was selected because engineers said it made good sense, and none of that has changed.

“That was the recommendation from LSU and the people who did the survey early on. There were only three sites, and that one was smack in the middle,” he said.

The commission is still awaiting approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the plan, however. In 2015, they denied the commission’s permit, but the commission requested reconsideration, which is pending.

Mizell was vice-chair on the old commission, and he also said it’s possible the new commission could make a better offer to residents in that area.

“Maybe we can make it a little more pleasing to the community,” he said. “So I think it’s on the table.”

For her part, Beech said she’d fight Mizell if he pushes for the Oak Grove reservoir. She added that the same group who opposed the first commission hasn’t gotten tired yet.

“We are watching. It’s not over. It’s gone too far to let the guard down,” she said.

However, the next step is far from clear. The next meeting has not yet been called and Mizell said he hasn’t even gotten an official letter confirming he’s on the commission.

Whenever those letters are mailed, and whenever the new commission meets, Beech said one thing is for certain.

“They’ll be under a lot of scrutiny. God bless them,” she said.