Secure drainage and flood controls are critical for survival on land that’s situated below sea level. In New Orleans, the upkeep of these vital systems is largely handled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans (SWB).
Among their joint efforts is the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Damage Reduction Project, or SELA Project, involving the construction of massive underground drainage canals. The project has been going on in phases since the 1990s, giving the government ample time to realize the construction can damage private property, and to set up a process to reimburse property owners for damages.
Indeed, before the start of the SELA Project’s extensive uptown phase, the Sewerage Board promised to compensate property owners for any damage caused by the work. As predicted, pile-driving vibrations and large construction machines connected with the project damaged many homes and businesses.
The damage exceeded even the government’s expectations, however. Starting in 2011, the project’s early days, property owners were helpless to prevent widespread structural ruin: broken floors, cracked walls and sidewalks, leaking roofs, broken plumbing and sewer lines, and inoperable doors and windows, for example. Not to mention living with incessant noise, dust, mud, and blocked roads and driveways.
But when the owners pursued their promised compensation, the Sewerage Board balked, acknowledging little to no damage and denying damage claims. Seventy landowners sued in state court and won more than $10.5 million in final judgments against the board—with interest, until the judgments are paid.
Despite a court order, enough money, and a federal constitutional obligation, the Sewerage Board still hasn’t paid the property owners for depriving them of the use of their homes and businesses—for four years and counting. Nor has it explained why. The property owners fared no better in federal court, which dismissed their case, holding that they had no right to timely payment, and that all they could do is wait for the board’s generosity.
The government cannot just take property and hand the owner an IOU. The Supreme Court has characterized the Just Compensation Clause as self-executing, with a built-in remedy for an unconstitutional taking that must be paid without unreasonable delay.
With cracked foundations and unsafe living conditions, property owners damaged by the government’s construction projects need the money they’re owed now, not years down the line, or whenever the government decides to honor its obligations.
Hemorrhaging money and time, and unable to repair their properties or restore their businesses, these small businesses and property owners asked the Supreme Court to confirm their constitutional right to reasonably timely just compensation. Given the thousands of cases petitioned to the Court each year, review is always a long shot, and the Court declined this request.