Leon Richard said he didn’t build a home overlooking the golf course in Eastover for the status of belonging to the prestigious New Orleans East subdivision. Rather, Richard envisioned the peace and quiet of living inside the gated community. From his back porch, the now-retired clinical pharmacist could see golfers along the perfectly manicured greens in the morning and holiday fireworks from the Jazzland theme park in the evening.

Then Katrina hit, ravaging New Orleans East and flooding the neighborhood. The clubhouse was ruined, the tennis courts and swimming pool unkempt. As for Richard’s view of the golf course — it was gone, too. 

Richard doesn’t blame the hurricane for that, though. He blames Eastover developer Donald “Donnie” Pate, who, in the years after Katrina, pitched homeowners with a plan to return Eastover to its former shining state. In a deal with the Eastover Property Owners Association, Pate would dig up and sell clay soil from the golf course to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to raise flood-protection levees, using the proceeds to fund the project.

Richard and his neighbors said they watched for years as trucks shuttled into the site and left bearing dirt. Over time, brush and weeds filled in other parts of the golf course, and in lieu of golfers, Richard observed wildlife. Richard and his wife used to sit outside, drinking coffee. “Now we sit on our porch and we have to scare away hogs,” he said. The golf course, the park, the jogging trail that Pate had once promised: none of that materialized. 

So Richard was incensed when he learned of a ballot measure for this Saturday’s election (April 29) for Eastover residents. The measure calls for a $500 increase to an Eastover parcel fee, which funds the security district of the neighborhood once known as the “crown jewel” of New Orleans East. 

A multipurpose court in the Eastover subdivision on Tuesday, April 25, 2023. Credit: Nigell Moses / Verite News

If the measure passes, each property owner would pay $2,152 a year to the district “in perpetuity.” It didn’t make sense to Richard that the board of the neighborhood association, which runs the security district, would seek to extract more money from homeowners when it could be focusing in on Pate, a more lucrative target. After all, Richard pointed out, Pate also failed to pay parcel fees on numerous other lots he’s held in the subdivision, and tax records show the city has taken control of many of Pate’s Eastover properties for failure to pay taxes. 

The ballot measure has reignited the years-long dispute pitting a faction of homeowners against the association over what Eastover should do about its former developer and how best to move forward. Richard and a handful of homeowners living closest to the “borrow pit,” the giant hole left after the dirt was removed, have also recently hired a new attorney in an effort to revive a 2014 lawsuit aimed at holding Pate accountable to the redevelopment plan.

Troy Henry, chairman of the association’s board, said the association pays for guards who police the community gates, and the cost to contract security services for roughly 300 homes is going up by more than 50 percent. Some homeowners want the perks of security, Henry suggested, without having to pay for it. And according to Henry, the anti-fee homeowners keep losing board elections themselves. “They’re the same folks that whine about everything that’s going on in the subdivision,” he told Verite News over the phone.

Henry finds it disingenuous that the irate homeowners are suggesting the board hasn’t pursued Pate. After all, the association hired a lawyer to demand in 2013 that Pate’s companies provide various records, along with a full accounting and copies of all bank statements for a lockbox account, meant to hold the money to fix up Eastover, at First NBC Bank. (The bank went belly-up in 2017.) 

That year, the association sued Pate because he wasn’t paying property taxes or fees. In 2015, the association sued again, demanding Pate stop digging out of the borrow pit. Two years later, the association filed another suit, again noting that Pate wasn’t paying taxes and demanding he hand over “common properties,” like Eastover’s private streets and the lagoons that dot the subdivision and are owned by Pate-controlled LLCs.

Meanwhile, some borrow pit-adjacent homeowners were filing their own lawsuits, at one point suing the association’s board.

None of those suits appear to have gone anywhere, though a group of the borrow pit neighbors is trying to revive one of these suits. As late as 2019, the upset homeowners allege, Pate appears to have continued excavating soil in violation of local zoning laws despite at least two missives from the city’s Department of Safety & Permits telling him to cease operations, according to documents furnished by the homeowners.

There’s no point in going after Pate at this point, according to Henry. “We’re all upset with it,” he said. “But they don’t have a solution. Their solution is to go after a developer who doesn’t have any assets, to go spend more legal fees to getting nothing. And you can’t force somebody to give up property they don’t even control or own anymore because it’s being adjudicated by the city.”

Pate, reached by phone in North Carolina, has his own perspective on the situation. “It’s not that we don’t have any assets,” Pate said. “But I have no legal responsibility. They’re trying to deal with a defunct Eastover corporation … That golf course has no assets other than the golf course.”

Pate said he did let the borrow pit area fill in as lakes, in accordance with the plan. And, he said, the effort to sell vast amounts of dirt to the Corps never panned out, because the Corps’ exacting requirements didn’t square with the costs of drying out the clay from the golf course. “We did take in, I don’t know, it probably ended up being less than a million or a million and a half dollars,” Pate said. But that money went toward a mortgage on the land, as outlined in one agreement

According to Pate, the contractor tasked with excavation started looking for other buyers — a small levee project in Plaquemines Parish, some individual lots in Eastover. But after years of pushback from the neighbors and the city, Pate eventually gave up and quit digging, he said.  

A timelapse view of the Eastover borrow pit, 1985-2022. Credit: Google Earth

The neighborhood association is working to legally obtain Pate’s remaining Eastover properties, Henry said, though he didn’t elaborate on how that process would work. Those properties would include the old golf course and borrow pit site, worth more than what the homeowners might be able to extract from Pate, said Henry. One such parcel making up the site was adjudicated to the city in 2016 after Pate failed to pay more than $48,000 in taxes, according to city records. That particular parcel appears to be scheduled for auction in June. When buyers failed to materialize for some Pate properties at tax sale, where an investor can pay delinquent taxes in exchange for a property claim, the city then “adjudicated” the parcels, allowing it to sell the actual deeds to the properties.

Henry is leading a group chosen by the city to redevelop the old Jazzland/Six Flags theme park site, which is separated from Eastover by I-510. The group, Bayou Phoenix, is also proposing a plan to redevelop the Eastover golf course and country club.

Henry told Verite he will stay out of any neighborhood association deliberations about how best to redevelop the land. “We would welcome the opportunity to help incorporate the golf course and country club into the overall Bayou Phoenix complex,” Henry said. “However, we have no commitment from the [association], and I recuse myself from all of those discussions.”

Pate said he’s always had an amicable relationship with the association. He claims they neared, but never signed a deal about two or three years ago to hand over the properties, though he declined to provide a copy of the unfinished agreement. Recently, when he saw that Bayou Phoenix developers had reached a Six Flags development agreement with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, Pate said he reached out to Henry regarding the Eastover land. Pate recalled Henry’s reply: “He said, ‘Yes, let’s get together and see where this would fit in our plans in the redevelopment of Six Flags.’” Pate added that he’d only ever communicated with Henry in his role as chairman of the homeowners’ association.

‘It’s a quality of life issue’

Any new redevelopment plan would likely hearken back to Eastover’s glory days, before Katrina. About $20 million had gone into Eastover by the time it opened in 1987 as a country club community, and a 1993 Times-Picayune article heralded the subdivision for its racial integration among Black, white and Asian New Orleanians of a monied class. Home values for the now primarily African American community ranged from $350,000 to more than $1 million by the time Katrina hit, according to a recent court filing in one of the cases against Pate.

The homeowners against the parcel fee who are still trying to pursue Pate in court say that now, many of their neighbors are retired and on fixed incomes. Pate’s failure to redevelop Eastover’s amenities means their property values have taken a hit, they say, even as they’ve sunk their own money into restoring homes following the hurricane. “It’s not that we’re filthy rich,” Richard said. “It’s that we have worked hard for what we have and we want to keep and maintain our property.”

After Katrina, some Eastover homeowners, including then-state Sen. Ann Duplessis, opposed Pate’s plan. They were worried the borrow pit would attract mosquitoes and damage the structural foundations of homes nearby. Despite resistance, the deal was inked.

Pate had previously agreed to restore the country club, the swimming pool, the tennis courts, and reconstruct the 18-hole golf course, per a 2008 memorandum of understanding, and at one point to set aside up to $3.9 million for such efforts. By 2010, the supposed plan was for Pate to fill in the borrow pit as a lake stocked with fish, encircled by a jogging trail. Pate would also build a bulkhead along the homeowners’ side of the canal separating houses from the golf course site, a structure that would have supposedly protected the homes from the effects of the pit.

Now, Pate says it will never be economically feasible to build a new golf course in New Orleans East. “We were never going to be able to redevelop it,” Pate said. “So paying taxes on it would just be throwing money away.”

The borrow pit-adjacent homeowners want to prove in court that the dirt excavation has caused structural damage to their houses, eroding soil and causing houses to sink. Sterling Doucette, a general contractor who lives near Richard, keeps a book of photo evidence — cracks and gaps along the brick and concrete of his house that he believes were caused by the pit. If Pate had built the bulkhead, “the water table wouldn’t have dropped as low as it did and caused the problem,” Doucette said.

Sterling Doucette points to undated photos taken of cracks in the driveway and brick of his house in the gated Eastover subdivision in New Orleans East. Credit: Nigell Moses / Verite News

The neighbors did block Pate’s efforts to develop a nearby subdivision in 2020, raising Pate’s history of failed promises to the New Orleans City Planning Commission. They also cited a 2015 conflict related to the borrow pit that Pate was also embroiled in. That year, one of Pate’s companies received about $120,000 by selling dirt from the pit to a contractor clearing a nearby site for construction of the Lake Forest Elementary Charter School, on whose governing board Pate sat at the time. Since Pate’s company profited from a deal with the school, it resulted in an investigation by the state Ethics Board, which cleared him of wrongdoing, though he resigned from the board after the potential breach was brought to his attention.

The aggrieved homeowners are optimistic about their suit against Pate and their fight against the hike in parcel fees. “It’s a quality of life issue,” Richard said. “We want our piece of the quality of life, and we’re not going to be denied.”

Update: On Saturday, April 29, Eastover residents rejected the proposed parcel fee increase by a vote of 126 opposed to 78 in favor, according to unofficial results from the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office.

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Michelle previously worked for The Associated Press in South Carolina and was an inaugural corps member with the Report for America initiative. She also covered statewide criminal justice issues for Mississippi...