More than a decade after buying up almost 100 acres of nearby residential land and razing the houses there, Louis Armstrong International Airport has resold only about a fourth of the property. Even that came only after the federal government pushed the airport to put its vacant land into commerce.
Now, however, airport and local government officials say they are working on a new plan to make the remaining 70 acres attractive to developers.
"I think we're working toward a consensus," said Aviation Director Iftikhar Ahmad, who took over at the airport May 24.
City officials in Kenner, where most of the land is located, have suggested the land might be more appealing to potential developers if the airport, instead of Kenner, owns the streets. That way, a developer could buy a large parcel unbroken by a public road.
But to put the roads under the airport's ownership would require that the airport swap some other land in exchange for the streets, airport property manager Sheldon Demas said. Airport officials are waiting on Kenner's proposal for a land swap then will ask the Federal Aviation Administration for approval, Demas said.
Kenner officials said developing vacant airport land would be a windfall for the city, in the form of sales and property taxes.
"We want it back in commerce. We want them to sell it as soon as possible," said Mike Quigley, Kenner's chief administrative officer.
He said the process has been slow partly because there's so much red tape. Normally, airport, New Orleans, Kenner and federal officials are involved in any sales.
Also, Quigley said, the land isn't as alluring to developers when it's broken up by empty lots. Riffing on the "jack o'lantern effect" that became common after Hurricane Katrina, he referred to the airport: "They originated the 'jack o'lantern effect."
Starting in the early 1990s, the airport bought hundreds of lots from homeowners to settle a lawsuit over jet noise. Little, if any, of that land was put back into commerce.
Then in 2005, the U.S. Office of Inspector General released a report that found airports across the country were holding onto noise buyout land that they didn't need. The report recommended disposing of the land to recoup the money the FAA spent to buy the property. The FAA then directed airports to lease or sell the property.
Ahmad said the New Orleans airport wants to sell its land, which is a different stance from the one taken by former airport director Sean Hunter who said the land might be leased.
Before the FAA order, Demas said, "We were just like every other airport in the country. There was no movement on putting it back in commerce."
Finally in 2006, a 20-1/2-acre parcel near The Esplanade shopping mall was swapped with plans to build a Home Depot store there. The store was never built, but Kenner received $3 million from the sale of the streets on the parcel.
Then last month, the airport engaged in a three-way swap of several parcels of land in south Kenner for a George Street building that is in the runway protection zone and will be demolished.
Currently there are almost 70 acres of developable airport land in Kenner, 7 acres in the James Business Park in St. Rose and 12 acres in Waggaman. Most of that was acquired as noise mitigation land. Some, such as the St. Charles Parish land, was acquired with an eye for airport expansion, Demas said.
To the end of selling the Kenner land, airport, Kenner and Jefferson Economic Development Commission officials have conferred twice in recent weeks and have another meeting scheduled for early October.
"We're trying to come up with a method or a plan to get this whole thing jump-started," Demas said.
Vacant airport land must be sold at market value, according to federal guidelines. Eighty percent of the money would go to the FAA, 20 percent to the airport.
Selling the land would not only be beneficial to Kenner but to the airport because it is now paying to maintain the property, airport spokeswoman Michelle Wilcut said.
The land doesn't come without stipulations. Most of it is zoned for residential use, but federal guidelines state that it can never again be used that way. Because the land abuts residences, Kenner City Council members want to protect their constituents.
Gregory Carroll, the 1st District member of the council, said he wants to make sure the uses are "not toxic to citizens" and not a hodgepodge of zoning.
Joe Stagni, the 2nd District council member, wants residents involved in any decision.
"I feel like my job is to ensure that we go through a process that the residents can not only see what may be coming, they can also express their views on it," he said.