Residents losing land over expansion

By By Lauren Manary / American Press

Four generations of Brannon Edwards’ family live together in a home they built with their own hands in 2004. It will likely

be gone by the end of summer.

“We built this house. We did the plumbing, the wiring, the outside, everything. That means more than, ‘Hey, I bought this

house.’ We built this house,” Edwards said.

The Edwardses will not be the only displaced residents in Vernon Parish. Sixty-seven other private tracts of land are in the

process of being acquired for the expansion of Fort Polk and the Joint Readiness Training Center. The move will expand the

post by almost 4,300 acres.

The Army-owned land surrounding the base is used for training purposes. Many units slated for deployment stop at Fort Polk

to engage in mock warfare to get soldiers prepared for the real thing overseas. The Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing

a south- and eastward expansion of Peason Ridge, one of the main areas for unit and live-fire training at the base.

Shane Demmer, deputy chief of real

estate for the Army Corps of Engineers, is overseeing the expansion. He

said the Army was

approved for an expansion of up to 100,000 acres by Congress in

2012. Of that, the post has expanded 32,500 acres using exclusively

commercial land, primarily buying up land from timber companies.

Those previous acquisitions have wrapped Army land around

private land — which he said could be problematic in the cases of

live-fire training.

The Corps of Engineers will do its best

to be sensitive and negotiate with landowners who will lose their land

as a result

of the acquisition, Demmer said. Appraisers are expected to be

sent to landowners’ homes by early June to evaluate the properties.

Demmer said written proposals for compensation, based on the

appraisals, for the sale of the property will be sent to landowners

beginning in July.

“If they don’t want to sell, we will

push it to the Army to see how they want to proceed,” he said. “The

Corps does not condemn.”

Willard McInnis, who lives on the

eastern part of the land to be acquired, is the second generation in his

family to be displaced.

His grandfather and grandmother were forced out of Peason Ridge by

a land acquisition in 1941.

“I’ve served my time in the Army. I was glad to do that. I made that sacrifice. Now here they are wanting to take our land.

We have rights in the Constitution, too. It says we have the right to life liberty and property, and they’re just tearing

it up,” he said.

McInnis said previous commanding generals at Fort Polk — Gen. K.K. Chinn and Gen. James Yarbrough — promised the Army would

not force residents to give up their land.

Demmer said those generals did not have the authority to make that claim. “Yes, we have a tool called ‘eminent domain’ that

the Army can decide to use,” Demmer said.

He said landowners will be able to take advantage of relocation assistance, which pairs them with a counselor. Landowners

are expected to be out of their homes within 90 days of accepting an offer for sale of the property.

McInnis said his home is not for sale.