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Elmer's Island Primer
Elmer's Island is a barrier beachfront with low dunes, mud and sand flats, marsh, lagoon and tidal channel comprising about 1700 acres (pre-2005 hurricane season) on the west side of Caminada Pass from Grand Isle in Jefferson Parish. It traditionally has been open to the public for fishing and camping for a small fee. It was closed in 2001 by the owner due primarily to liability issues and a lack of desire to continue operating the enterprise. It is one of the few land accessible beaches on the Louisiana coast and has been a popular destination for fishing, camping, birding and beachcombing for many years. Results from a recent user survey and economic analysis (see link below) suggest that the entry fees from conservatively-projected public use of the area would be sufficient to cover the annual maintenance and operation costs, and the local economic impact that would be generated by restoring public use of the area would make acquiring Elmer's Island a sound investment of state funds.
Stories abound on who owns what on Elmer's Island. Some say that it was originally state or parish land that was given over to private ownership many years ago for the property taxes. The state claims a significant amount (currently, 250 acres on the east side) as accreted land. But regardless of how much of Elmer's Island the Elmer Family does or does not own, if it owns the land fronting the highway that provides road access to the beach, then it essentially controls public use of the area.
At one time, back when Jay Elmer was still alive and operating Elmer's Island as a public use area, he was asking $10 million for the property. Later, after his death, the Elmer Family put the property on the market, asking $6 million (sources said they would take $5 million). After the state took an interest in acquiring the property and began the appraisal process, it was reported by Bob Marshall in the Times-Picayune that the owners would accept $5 million for the property and maybe donate part of that back to the state for a conservation tax credit. The attorney representing the state in the negotiations with the Elmers reported that a preliminary appraisal put the value of the property the Elmer Family actually owned at $1 million. That did not evoke any warmth from the owners. A reconsideration of the appraisal in light of the LSU AgCenter survey and economic analysis apparently did not boost the value sufficiently to encourage a fruitful negotiation before the end of Governor Foster's term.
The state is bound by law to pay an amount reasonably close to fair market or appraised value. The problem with trying to develop an appraisal for Elmer's Island based on comparables is that there are no comparables. One of the factors affecting the commercial value of Elmer's Island is that development on the property is subject to the provisions of the federal Coastal Barrier Resources Act which precludes the availability of federal funding or subsidies that would encourage development, such as flood insurance or support for infrastructure like water and power lines, etc. A discussion of the economic value and appraisal issues associated with the acquisition of Elmer's Island is contained in the AgCenter report which is available online.
The Louisiana Office of State Parks has been interested in Elmer's Island for some time. In its State Parks Master Plan 1997-2012, OSP has a $22 million park development plan for what is referred to as "Fourchon/Caminada Island State Park." The plan includes the Elmer's Island beachfront but also the entire beach from Elmer's Island to Belle Pass with two 800' fishing piers, 5 smaller piers for marsh fishing, manager and assistant manager residences, 2 entrance stations, 2 boat launches, 40 cabins and 150 motorhome hookups. The cabins would be located west of the Elmer's Island property. The plan appears to be primarily conceptual and apparently assumes the prospect of willing sellers from which to acquire the necessary land rights to develop the park. It is not clear whether or not the plan took into account the limitations that might be placed on development due to the application of the Coastal Barrier Resources Act or the Coastal Zone Management Act.
The wisdom of constructing such an elaborate development in such an exposed area certainly deserves a public discussion, as does the compatibility of such a development with the state's coastal restoration plan and the state and federal statutory limitations that might affect development. To avoid these issues with respect to the Elmer's Island property, and to preserve the natural landscape and habitat values there, the Louisiana Wildlife Federation proposed that Elmer's Island be acquired and managed as a primitive use area with minimal amenities necessary for public health and safety. Strong support for this concept is indicated by the results of the previously-referenced LSU AgCenter survey.
In addition to preserving the character and habitat of the area, LWF's proposal was motivated by the desire to reopen the area to the public as soon as possible. Officials with the Office of State Parks indicated that it would take 5 years from land acquisition to opening of a state park. The LWF believes that is too long of a time to wait to meet the public's desire to regain use of the area after it is aquired by the state. That is not to say that Elmer's Island could not initially reopen under a management regime that expedites quick restoration of public use, while planning a more elaborate park development plan to be implemented in the future.
Steps to Achieving the Dream -- a State Seashore
Buy and put Elmer's Island under management. Negotiate sale or lease with the handful of other owners that control access to the several miles of beachfront west of the Elmer property, to Belle Pass, including any significant back beach and cheniers, ponds and marsh habitat that would be complementary to the needs of the State Seashore. These actions would open the entire length of beach from Caminada Pass to Belle Pass. Develop and enforce appropriate use restrictions to protect the beach and other sensitive habitats, particularly with regard to the use of vehicles.