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Last Modified: Monday, January 13, 2014 2:11 PM
It’s been a little over a month since Sasol’s Voluntary Property Purchase Program’s sign-up period ended, and the preliminary numbers point to something of an exodus.
Nearly 83 percent of residents in Mossville and Brentwood signed up for the program, which gives them the opportunity to sell their homes to Sasol and leave the area as the company expands its Westlake plant. As of press time Saturday, owners in 71 residences have accepted Sasol’s offer, and 12 have sold their homes to the company.
Sasol’s purchase area is composed of 883 lots, both residential and vacant, spread across about 620 acres. Only 64 residences — 62 in Mossville and two in Brentwood — are expected to remain standing in the area after all of the property owners who participated in the program have sold their homes to Sasol and moved.
“I have good days when I’m really excited about the move and other days when I’m crying,” said Jackie Green, a Mossville native and resident for 42 years who sold her home on Prater Road to Sasol. “We’re leaving behind a community that was once a thriving community with a post office and its own store. My grandfather was known as the mayor of Mossville. So we’re leaving a lot of history behind.”
From the program’s inception in August, Sasol officials said Mossville and Brentwood residents would get better than fair market value for their homes. Mike Hayes, Sasol’s public affairs manager for U.S. megaprojects, said all residents who have accepted Sasol’s offer are getting a minimum of 160 percent of their home’s appraised value.
Residents who sign up for the program are asked to get three home appraisals from appraisers listed on the Louisiana Real Estate Commission’s website. Residents can also use appraisers who are not on the list, provided they are licensed in Louisiana, in practice full time and are local. All appraisals are sent to Community Interactive Consulting, the Buckhead, Ga.-based company Sasol hired to administer the program. CIC pays for all of the program’s appraisals.
If the first two appraisals are within 10 percentage points of each other, CIC officials will calculate Sasol’s offer based on an average of them. If the difference in the appraisals is greater than 10 percentage points, CIC will order a third appraisal and base Sasol’s offer on an average of the two highest amounts.
The program also has a minimum appraised price of $100,000 for all owner-occupied homes. Rental property owners are given a minimum appraised price of $75,000. Owners of unimproved properties receive a $5,000 minimal appraisal.
Residents will also get a $500 professional advice allowance, which they can keep even if they reject Sasol’s offer. To date, none of Sasol’s offers has been rejected.
“We’re still gathering appraisals and making offers,” said John C. Mitchell, CIC’s president. “We’ve got people who have accepted offers and are out there searching for homes. We’ve got people who’ve made commitments to purchase homes, and we’re making equity advances for them. So we’re doing all of those activities that are typical of a property purchase program.”
Owners who accept Sasol’s offer, Mitchell said, have up to six months to close the sale.
Sasol’s offers to homeowners are nonnegotiable, a fact that irked some Mossville residents. Monique Harden, co-director and attorney for Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a New Orleans-based law firm that is representing Mossville residents, said there is nothing in Sasol’s program — including its Dec. 4 deadline — that cannot be changed, amended or improved.
“The program is not written in stone; it’s not law,” she said. “The problem with this program was in its inception. It was put together without any conversation with residents in Mossville or Brentwood about what their needs would be.”
Harden said work is going on in the Mossville community to “create improvements” to Sasol’s program “because of the specific needs of residents.”
“Does Sasol really know what’s needed?” she said. “They haven’t taken the time to figure that out. They’re doing a one-size-fits all approach, but they don’t know what the community needs. The Voluntary Property Purchase Program is a mechanism by which Sasol can avoid negative impact on people living in the surrounding area. That also means it has to be done right.”
Harden said residents’ needs vary, including disability assistance with relocation and avoiding financial hardship.
“For some, it’s being able to have enough funds to be able to relocate into another area of their choosing without having the disadvantage or financial hardship of having to pay another mortgage,” she said. “Some people may not have enough money to relocate to a home with a similar bedroom and bathroom size and living space.”
Harden said Mossville-area residents who chose not to sign up for the program were unwilling to speak to the American Press.
Sasol officials are in the process of identifying what community needs will have to be met, especially those that will bring the biggest challenges for the residents who remain in the area, Hayes said. The first of these challenges Sasol will address, he said, will be delivering good drinking water to residences.
“They will be at the end of whatever delivery system is available,” Hayes said. “So it will be a challenge for them to get clean water. We’re going to be challenged on how we are going to do this. Running a pipe out to 64 residences, while that sounds easy, it’s not.”
Although Sasol has already begun buying properties from Mossville-area owners, Hayes said it could take up to three years before Sasol buys all of the homes that residents agree to sell them through the program. Part of this long time frame, he said, is due to Louisiana laws on how heirship is considered in real estate transactions.
“Some of the properties have as many as 80 heirs to deal with,” he said. “If the owner of the property did not write a will and probate the will, the property descends to the heirs, and over time it descends to subsequent heirs. A lot of the parcels have multiple owners. There could be thousands of people who could be signed up in the program right now.”
For one of those people, Jackie Green, the chance to move to a new home, far removed from Sasol’s massive plant expansions, has been “a blessing.”
“A lot of people probably have mixed feelings because there is so much history in the community,” she said. “We have roots here. But you have to do what’s best for you and your family. That was the decision we made. We chose to do what was best for us and our family.”