Ron's Story
UNO, Mandeville, Yucatan: 1992 through Hurricana Katrina in 2005


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This Section covers 12 and a half years and is currently being written by Ron with a completion date in the first half of 2018.




Thibodeaux's Music Hall & Piffany Oaks

Cellie's IRS Audit

Clearing Titles & Prieto Problems

Costa Rica

Wetlands Research

Life in Mandeville

Land Dev., Spec. Homes & Old Mand. Woods

Yucatan & South La Research

Cameron, Logan, & SFAS

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita


Thibodeaux's Music Hall and Piffany Oaks Wedding and Reception Hall



     In the previous year Louise and I had divorced in January, Cellie had died in March, and Londi and I had married in December.  We had moved into Cellie's former rent house at 1623 Lakeshore Dr (built in the 1930s by my grandfather Ernest) which I had purchased from Lloyd and Marilyn.  Louise was still working as a psychologist at Southeast Louisiana Hospital and living in our old Lakeshore house a block way.  Louise soon gave me primary custody of David, saying he couldn't be trusted not to sneak out of her house at night.  Londi became his surrogate mother for his teenage years.  I was now 45, transforming some of my research from pure science to applied science and branching out into some business pursuits (described later).  I was still working in the Yucatan and would take Londi with me.  However, she was still working at URS and (later) for herself and these trips soon became a vacation for her.  Like Louise before her, she became a beach bunny, enjoying the Carribean while I would go out to take samples in the cenotes and come back to do field analyses.  We would rent a villa or a condo for a week and generally stayed at Akumal on Half Moon Bay but sometimes at Playa del Carmen on the coast.  It was a wonderful time in my life.  We sometimes rode the ferry between Playa and Cozumel with flying fish landing sporadically on the deck.  At night, coming back from Cozumul, the ferry ride was usually rough and some riders would be seasick and puking while others were dancing to Latin music - interesting atmosphere.  Once I toured the island on a motocycle with Londi on the back.  She first asked me if I knew how to ride a motorcycle and I replied "Of course, just like I drive a car."  But I forgot to snap my helment strap and my helmet blew off and smacked her in the head.  She was mad as hell and after picking her up, I promised it wouldn't happen again.  Damn if that helmet didn't blow off and smack her again.  I didn't mention it to her but she now looked a little cross-eyed.  That was the last time she rode behind me on a motorcycle (lol).  Within a couple of years she wouldn't even ride as a passanger in a car if I was driving.  Londi would say there had to be a guardian angel lookng over me to explain my survival!  And I would reply truthfully "Nothing really bad ever happens to a Stoessell.  It's our motto."  Women can be so difficult.

     During the summer of 1992, I took Londi with me to Barbados to gather more water samples for my geochemical studies.  We used the time together on the trip to figure out what she wanted to do as a career.  She enjoyed the field work as a URS geohydrologist but hated the sexist attitude of her boss, e.g., being forced to participate in lunches with him and clients at establishments holding lingerie shows.  Londi wanted out of that situation.  She was and is an entreprenure, and what could she do to make use of her talents in Mandeville.  I had all this land in the Mandeville area sitting idle.  Could she start a business?  Londi was energetic but her ideas were not always practical.  I remember discussing raising pigs, then raising red deer, and finally buffalo on some of the land north of Lacombe.  (Can you imagine the height of fencing needed to hold those nimble red deer or the size of fencing necessary to hold buffalo?)  There had to be something else.  Back in the 70s, Londi had loved going to concerts in the legendary "Warehouse" in New Orleans.  We had enjoyed the night life in the Big Easy and had spent many an evening dancing and drinking at the Maple Leaf on Oak Street and at Tipitinas on the corner of Tchoupitoulas St and Napoleon Ave.  Could Tipitinas be dublicated on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain and would there be enough patrons to support it?  Cellie had left her children the south half of an undeveloped city block (Sq 57) across Montgomery Street from the Mandeville Cemetery.  This would be a great location for a music hall.  Unless we raised the Dead, they wouldn't complain about noise from the bands.  We sat and drank on the Barbados beaches and planned it out.  I needed to partition the property with Marilyn and Lloyd and then we could build the music hall.  We would call it Thibodeaux's Music Hall.  The property was the center third of the south half of the block and through purchases we ended up with the entire block except for the southwest corner, owned by Lloyd and Marilyn.  Londi closely monitored the contractor to gain experience to later build "spec" houses.  The slab was poured the morning of August 26th, the day Hurricane Andrew hit Southeast Louisiana.  I remember Cajun dancing with Londi on that concrete slab the day after the storm.  The completed building was two stories high with a barn roof and tile floors. At one corner was a silo that housed the rotated stairway.  Inside was a raised stage with an upstairs mezzanine that looked down on the main floor.  Above the stage was a large stained glass window of a swamp scene with a live oak and blue irises in the background.  Cousin Tommy loaned us Sarah, his stuffed red fox (road-kill) named after his ex-wife, which we hung over the bar.  And we opened that fall with two good friends: Harvey and Doug, as our bartenders.  These two had been the bartenders at Morton's bar on the Tchefuncta River in Madisonille where Londi and I often went.

     A funny incident occurred when we opened Thibodeaux's which I have to relate.  One morning, I was driving on the 24 mile Pontchartrain Causeway across Lake Pontchartrain to UNO to teach and as usual, reviewing my notes propped on the steering wheel.  I happened to look up and then to my left and there was a police car with a cop staring at me.  He turned on his lights and siren and over a loudspeaker tells me to pull in the next crossover.  Oh hell, I was going to get a ticket for reading while driving.  What a way to start the day.  As he was writing the ticket, cars were streaming past at a faster clip than the 55 mile an hour speed limit.  So I asked him why he wasn't ticketing them and he said he wanted to give them a break.  I replied "Why not give me a break." which seemed to irritate him.  The next morning, I'm driving on the causeway again and looking across a hundred feet of water at the adjacent bridge for drivers going in the opposite direction.   I'm still irritated by getting a ticket the previous day and here comes a police car going in the opposite direction.  I rolled down my window and yelled a few curse words, confident that the cop couldn't hear me.  Just then I passed a crossover between the two bridges.  I watched through my rearview mirror in horror as the cop pulled into the crossover, entering my bridge, and pulled behind me with his siren and lights on.  Oh hell, he must have heard me curse him out.  This time I was probably going to jail!  I pulled in at the next crossover and got out to talk to him.  It was the same guy that had given me the ticket.  He said "Are you the Ron Stoessell opening a music hall in Mandeville?" "Well, Yes", I replied.  Well give me the ticket I gave you yesterday."   And he tore it up.  Wow!  What was going on?  He said "You asked me yesterday to give you a break and I've done that.  Now I need a favor.  I play the guitar and I need a gig at your music hall."  Hmm, "OK", I replied and he gave me his business card.  I told my class that day what had happened and we laughed about this dishonest cop who would never get a returned call from us for a gig.

     I can't sugar-coat it.  Thibodeaux's Music Hall was not a financial success and only lasted through the spring of 1994 before Londi converted it into a successful wedding reception hall.  The problem was the cover collected rarely covered the cost of the bands so we ended up having to use bar sales to attempt to cover expenses.  There just weren't enough Northshore patrons for an upscale Music Hall to produce a profit.  We also had to compete with Ruby's Roadhouse, two blocks away on Lamarque St., run by our good friends Fred and Dianne Holland who had previously run the Maple Leaf in New Orleans.  Ruby's was originally an African American bar and had just been listed in Car and Driver Magazine as one of the ten best roadhouses in the country.  One night their wooden dance floor actually collapsed under the dancers.  And another night the toilet in the women's restroom fell through the floor under the weight of a pachunka patron.  These are legendary events for patrons at a roadhouse and we were too upscale to compete.  But regardless, Thibodeaux's Music Hall was great fun!  On good nights, people would move back and forth between Ruby's and Thib's.  The background song in this Chapter is Lorraine's Song, sung by Theresa Andersson who first played at Thibs in 1992 when she was too young to legally drink in Louisiana.   Every guy wants to own a bar in his lifetime and I was no exception.

     Thibodeaux's was open from 8 PM to 2 AM on Friday and Saturday, and on Sunday afternoon with all types of bands (usually Cajun and Zydeco on Sunday) but the Blues suited my temperament best.  There were plenty of good times: great music and a few fights!  Thibs was Londi's venture and she ran it.  Initially, bars and music halls could stay open all night in Mandeville but Ruby's Roadhouse was so popular that an ordinance was introduced to close bars at 2 AM, except on days like Mardi Gras.  The City Council debated it one night at a meeting we attended.  The issue was touch and go with some residents and city police complaining about noise and drunk drivers while others tearfully recounted their need for a surrogate home to spend the night getting drunk. (LOL)  Then a local, respected resident (building contractor) spoke up and said "When I've been in bars after 2 AM, I'm always been up to No Good."  That statement sealed the approval of the ordinance.  That same resident was later tragically hit by a drugged-out driver when returning home one night from work.  He ended up mentally incapacitated for life, eventually losing the emotional support of his wife and two daughters.  Damn that f...ing driver!

     I did the outside landscaping for Thibs, often collected cover, and had the fun of visiting Big Easy establishments, like Checkpoint Charlie, the Howlin' Wolf, the Rocking Bowl, the Maple Leaf, and Carrollton Station, looking for good bands in all the "right" places.  The Big Easy bands and performers that played at Thibodeaux's were legendary (to me): Walter Wolfman Washington, Irene and the Mikes, Sunpie, Mary Serpas, Cowboy Mouth, Evangeline, Marsha Ball, Anders Osborne with Theresa Andersson, Rockin (David) Dopsie Jr. with his Dad (the King of Zydeco), The Radiators, Irma Thomas, Allen Tousiant, Charmaine Neville, Gatemouth Brown, Percy Sledge, Marva Wright and the list goes on.  King Dopsie died unexpectedly a couple of weeks after a gig at Thibs and we missed him when the Zydeco Twisters came back to Thibs.  Sometimes, band members were difficult to deal with.  I think it was on opening night that Wolfman Jackson called us from jail in Mississippi.  He needed to be bailed out (lol) and the band did eventually show up.  Irene Sage of Irene and the Mikes was great on stage but inbetween sets, she always appeared to be unconscious in their van.  It was a wonder she could climb up on the stage, much less perform.  I can close my eyes and see her belting out "Jumping Jack Flash."  She was good!  Every band was different.  Fred, the singer-drummer in Cowboy Mouth would set up at the edge of the stage and inadvertenly spit on you if you came to close (lol).  Marsha Ball always played the keyboard while sitting with crossed legs, bouncing her left leg and kicking with her right leg in her funky way.  Listening to Irma Thomas sing the Blues brought back so many great memories of watching her at LSU events in the 60s.  She has so much soul.  Most of the women performers like Theresa Andersson, Marsha Ball, Irma Thomas, and Charmaine Neville were angels in their interactions with us but others like the Evangeline members acted like goddesses and made life miserable for us, e.g., their list of items to be supplied with included "specific brands of sanitary napkins".  Regardless, Evangeline was, in my opinion, the best band to play at Thibodeaux's and if the girls had stayed together they would have made it big.

     On the dance floor, there were sometimes fights between women and fights between men.  One night Londi realized a fight was brewing on the dance floor.  She ran out and got inbetween two guys just as one was taking a swing at the other.  Londi told me she dropped to the floor and crawled back to the bar to call the police.  We had the usual Halloween and Mardi Gras parties.  One of the pictures shows Mary Grace Knapp partying at Thibs.  She was a local attorney and Londi's best friend at the time.  Mary Grace was a party girl.  Our CPA Ed Dillard (with Mardi Gras beads) is also shown with friends.  Ed became the owner of the T Rivers Bar in Madisonville, the only other real roadhouse besides Ruby's in the area.  Our good friends Jim and Kathy Northey with their family are shown in Halloween (or was it Mardi Gras) costumes in another photo above.  Their daughter Sarah (tall, pretty girl in silver paint near the center) later worked for Londi when Thibs became a wedding reception hall.  Sarah was and is an angel of light.  Jim and Kathy later went to the Yucatan with us, and Jim dove in Cenote Angelita with me.  My good friends Sid Gale, Enrique (Ricky) Esbrooke and I would often stand near the entrance, soaking up the atmosphere, and reminiscing about how our lives had brought us here.  I do miss those friends.  When people drink, all sorts of profound statements are made.  One evening Londi was talking with Mandeville Mayor Paul Spitzfadden and Councilman Nixon Adams at the bar.  Cousin Mary walked up, drunk as a skunk, jokingly (?) saying "I love Londi but I hate that cousin of mine that she married.  If I see him crossing a street, I'll run over him and then back up over him a few times to make sure he's dead."  Cousin Mary than stumbled off - hilareous from my point of view.  Somehow, I was usually absent (from duty) when interesting incidents occurred.  But I do remember during an Evangeline concert, Miles Gautreaux (about 5'6" tall) dropping a beer bottle from the second floor on the head of a very big New Orleans Saints player (about 6'6" tall)- which amazingly did not start a fight.  I was collecting cover at this concert, and we were probably way over the capacity set by the fire chief.  I just kept taking the money and shoving-em through the door (LOL).  My most memorable evening was watching a group of good friends and musicians "getting down", playing "St. James Infirmary" Blues while lying down on the stage.  The music that evening flowed through the night and into my soul!  I like to think some of it is still there.

     In 1994, Londi began the conversion of Thibs to Piffany Oaks Wedding and Reception Hall.   She named the hall after her niece Piffany Harrington.  Londi advertised and slowly built the business to make it a financial success over the next few years.  We added gardens surrounded by a French Quarter wrought iron fence in the back for the wedding ceremony.  I think Londi poured her heart and soul into the business, training a great staff that included Sarah Northey the daughter of our good friends Jim and Kathy Northey.  Doug and Harvey stayed with us as bartenders and were joined by Robert (Bobbie) Malanders of Choctaw Indian descent.  Robert (Chief) became a good friend and stayed with us for years helping us with land development, construction, etc.  He later became the bartender at Ruby's.  Our neighbors daughter Leah Stanley joined the girls working the events.  And her assistant Angela Richard stayed with her for the next ten years as Londi moved into other business venues, acting as her office manager.  Londi initially enjoyed dealing with the brides, their families, and the public.  I remember Sarah and the staff happily singing "I'm Going Get Married Today" as they went about preparing for an event.  They were a great group of girls.

     But this was such a "hands on" business that eventually Londi grew tired of it.  She no longer wanted to deal with the occasional bride who was never satisfied, the discord that sometimes occurred between divorced parents, and grooms that were sometimes drunk and incapacitated.  After 2000, we sold Piffany Oaks to a professional caterer and restaurant owner but he lacked the personality and drive to successfully interact with the public.  Eventually, Howling Wolf in New Orleans bought the hall to run again as a Northshore music hall.  They had great bands but they acted as though all they needed to do was open and the public would come, i.e., didn't do the advertising, etc to promote the business.  Mandeville wasn't New Orleans and music venues needed to be nursed to succeed.  I walked in one night in 2010(?) when Marsha Ball was playing and there were only about 20 customers in the hall.  As a former owner who knew the money Marsha would charge the hall, I knew the business would go down 1 to 2 thousand dollars that night.  Sadly, the hall was closed, abandoned for years until it burned down on February 11, 2018.  Perhaps someday it will rise again from the dead while Irene Sage belts out Jumping Jack Flash.

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Cellie's IRS Audit



     Londi was running Thibodeaux's Music Hall one night in late 1992 when I received the depressing irs letter saying Cellie's estate was being audited.  The band and patrons finally left, and she and I sat at the bar, drank heavily and tried to figure out what to do.  Any increased valuation in the estate by the irs would be taxed at greater than 55%.  Our estate lawyers and appraisers told us to be prepared to double the inheritance taxes that we had paid in the estate filing.  But Londi had been previously married to an irs agent and she proposed a different approach.  Let the estate lawyers go.  In the end the audit would come down to agreeing on land values.  The agents would be more sympathetic looking at us over the table and not at hired guns.  The irs letter said to bring all financial records for the last 3 months of her life up to the present along with real estate appraisals.  We decided to overwhelm them with records.  Londi spent a month putting the financial records together with copies of every check and monthly report from every financial account, along with a copy of every real estate appraisal used in the original estate filing and our information supporting the appraised values.  We arrived at the New Orleans irs building with boxes of records, arranged in binders, to meet our agent.  He was a nice, elderly guy who was pleased that we were providing information in an orderly fashion.  And Londi established a good rapport with him.  But there was so much information, it would take him months to go over it.  Eventually he retired before finishing the audit, turning us over to a second agent who also retired before finishing the audit.  Finally the third agent promised me he would finish the audit before retiring, which he did and then retired.  (We were a retirement force to be reckoned with!)

     The agents didn't do much with the voluminous financial records except to make sure that a check had been written for every claimed estate expense.  That only produced one problem.  At Marsha Higbee's suggestion, we had inflated her legal bills in the estate filing to show more estate expenses.  Marsha had guided me through the estate process at little cost and this did not even bring her fees up to what they could have been.  But now I had to cut her a family check for the difference.  Marilyn was angry that Cousin Marsha didn't return the money after deducting for her income taxes (LOL), destroying that family relationship, a personal loss for me that I regret to this day.  But the real hangup was establishing reasonable real estate values.  Cellie died during a recession so real estate values were depressed (lucky for us) and there were few comparable sales to establish property values.  Citing the lack of comparable land sales, the irs wanted to use sales up to a year after Cellie died, and these values were higher since the recession had ended.  Our argument against this was the values were supposed to be the actual market values at the time of her death?  In addition, the 1,500 estate acres would have crashed the local real estate market if they were all put up for sale at one time.  So that discount in value had to be agreed to and included in the appraisals.  And finally what discount should be made for wetlands.  There was, in general no standing water on the land but it was pine savannah, much of it falling under the Army Corp of Engineers definition of wetlands, i.e., land classified as "Waters of the US".  Wetland delineations were needed to establish wetland acreage.  We had already received written offers from developers to buy some of our property for subdivisions and they had invariably requested that the wetlands would be free (lol).  So what value would the irs accept for wetlands?  We, of course, had done our best to undervalue the properties relative to the recession market values in the estate filing, and the irs had expected this.  So our goal was to come to an agreement that made the irs happy but was still below the recession market values at the time of her death.  Neither side wanted to go to court, so the negotiations were to become a poker game.

     First we needed to get the wetland delineations quickly done.  Who to use?  We needed a private consultant whose work was trusted by the USACE (Army Corp of Engineers) so the irs would accept their delineations.  Londi and I visited the USACE headquarters in New Orleans to talk with the head honcho who oversaw issuing the "infamous" 404 wetland permits.  We asked him who to hire that they thought was competent.  Well, federal employees cannot recommend private contractors to the public and he had the most unfriendly assistant with him.  (As described later, I had to interact with that assistant, and he was a pain in the ass, dishonest bureaucrat.)  Several days later, a letter came in the mail with no return address, citing an anonymous federal employee in an anonymous federal agency telling us to hire Barbara P. who worked with J.V. Burkes, an engineering firm in Slidell.  (Hmm - Wonder who sent that letter?)  Barbara was JV's daughter and was a self-taught wetland delineator.  (I think she had an art degree.  She was also beautiful and fun to follow around in the field.)  Her father's civil engineering firm also did surveying, essential to mapping the delineated wetland boundaries.  The mapping was supervised by her brother Sean, a civil engineer.  It was a great move for us.  Wetlands are delineated based on 3 criteria: the presence of hydric (wetland) plants; indicators on the average location of the water table; and the oxidation states of the soil layers as shown by their colors.  The first criteria included identifying grasses which was and is a bitch.  But the second criteria was actually hydrology, Londi's field as a geohydrologist, and the third criteria was soil chemistry, my field as a geochemist.  So Londi and I tagged along with Barbara in the field while she flagged the boundaries.  And we successfully argued (lol) for more wetlands whenever we could in order to maximize our wetland discount with the irs.  I think we were their only clients who hoped to find nothing but wetlands.  It would have been a disaster if the irs had made us actually file those reports with the USACE, because we would then have had to live with the delineations in later land sales.  But they didn't, and the delineations were never used and subsequently forgotten.

     We hired Charlie O'Brien from Covington to fine-tuned the land appraisals.  He was a well-respected appraiser, a trusting grandfatherly figure.  We thought the irs would be hesitant to challenge his appraisals in court, an opinion later verbally verified to me by our irs agent.  Then we began having meetings.  There was this young irs agent who attended the meetings and wanted to make his reputation by forcing us to agree to higher land values, actually reasonable values, which was an unreasonble expectation from our point of view.  At one point he told us that CLECO (Central Louisiana Electric Cooperative) officials had informed him that they had made an offer to us for some of our property for a line station at a given acreage price.  This would establish a value for property in that area.  But he was lying.  We knew the CLECO management and they verified that they had not made any offer.  To me, he had crossed a moral line.  As a loyal American and military veteran, I considered it OK to lie to the irs but inconceiveable they would lie to me. (LOL)  The most memorable moment for me occurred listening to the young irs agent and Londi arguing about the additional value to place for timber on 10 acres out in the boondocks.  But I knew the property had been clear-cut so there was no timber.  However, they both agreed there was an auto dump on the adjacent property because they had confused two different properties.  And the irs agent had decreased the property value far below the actual value due to the presence of the "imaginary" dump.  So I just sat there and accepted their compromise value.  I thought it was hilareous.  Eventually, one afternoon, we met around my grandfather's round cross-cut oak dining table in my Mandeville home.  Huey Long had sat at this same table for dinner with my grandparents.  At this final meeting, the senior irs agent had had enough.  He wanted to retire.  The younger agent was not willing to compromise more.  The senior agent asked everybody to leave accept me.  And the two of us worked out a compromise in about 15 minutes that my family and the irs could live with.  And that was it!  The audit was over.  The agent got to retire. - End of story.

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Clearing Titles & Prieto Problems



     Starting in 1992, concurrently with the irs audit of Cellie's estate, I began to clear titles on her various properties as her executor.  Ten years earlier I had asked Cellie to begin this process, but she had laughed and said it would be part of our reward in inheriting property.  Cousin David Moore recommended using Bob Anderson, their family lawyer who handled his mother's estate (Aunt Marion).  I called Bob to talk with him about being our famiy lawyer.  He told me his first case in St. Tammany Parish was to successfully sue Cousin Ernest for damages for beating up his client, a plumber who Ernest said had done shoddy work for his mother-in-law.  Hmm, I knew we would need someone willing to take on Cousin Ernest in court, so he sounded OK to me.  Londi and I hired him and began a long friendship and fortuitous relationship with him, his wife Betty, and their daughter Julie.  Both Betty and Julie were also abstractors and Betty had previously been a researcher working with the Tulane Primate Center.  She was the gracious southern lady who handled our business affairs with both grace and charm.  The title problems were in numerous lots that were in undeveloped subdivisions my Grandfather Ernest had obtained title to, after the developers pulled out pre-1930.  These were sell-out lots that had been previously bought but taxes never paid on them by absentee landowners and the titles reverted to the state or parish.  Some of these lots had then been sold at subsequent tax sales to new owners.  Each parcel of lots was abstracted and any title defects found.  We then filed mostly "uncontested" lawsuits against long-dead owners of the lots and their descendants.  We also purchased lots that had been bought by others at tax sales.  Only once did we go to court to obtain title by possession against a multiple lot owner who had title through a valid tax sale purchase.  We never found actual decendants of original lot owners.  Bob hired Ed Murphy, an attorney with a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Tulane, to represent the absent and deceased owners and their unknown descendants.  It certainly helps to hire lawyers to handle both sides of a legal dispute, ensuring the lack of any legal dissent from the other side.  The law moves in "not so mysterious" ways.  Sadly, Bob died around 2000 and Betty passed a few years later in 2003.  I miss them both.  Dr. Ed Murphy has since served as our family lawyer.  He is both a fine attorney and a good philosophical friend.

     This actually happened to us when dealing with the parish on tax sales.   In the past when property taxes were not paid, title reverted to the state who was then responsible for putting the land up for tax sale.  If they weren't sold at the tax sale, then the title stayed with the state and you could either ask the state to include them in the next tax sale or redeem them through legal action against the last owner and also pay the taxes due.  However, several of our problem lots now had their title in the parish, not the state. Apparently, now(?) if you do not pay the property taxes, the title goes to the parish.  My sister Marilyn went to the parish to ask them to put some of these problem lots in Square 134 up for tax sale.  She talked to Robert Barnett, a parish attorney who worked for the parish president Kevin Davis.  He told her she was wasting her time because in the event of a parish tax sale someone else would buy the lots at the sale, i.e., a parish employee conducts the sale and determines who can bid on those lots and it wouldn't be her.  "Why not?" she asked.  Well (LOL) - it was because he was the one who had actually purchased these lots at a state tax sale (to a shell corporation) and then didn't pay the taxes so that the title could sit in the parish.  Apparently this was a ploy to not have to pay property taxes until he was ready to sell them.  What a crook!  I had a meeting with Kevin Davis to tell him what was going on.  The guy is still a parish attorney (who says crime doesn't pay) but the parish did publically announce it would starting holding tax sales on all lots held by the parish.  Meanwhile, we just gave up on those lots.  In Louisiana, there is no illusion that the government operates for the public.

     With the death of Cellie and her siblings, there was a lot of heartache dealing with Cousins Ernest, Mary, and Clay.  In the name of preserving family harmony, Uncle Preston and Aunt Marion's families would acquiesce to their demands.  And through real estate commissions, legal fees and other fees, e.g. for handling sign rentals and hunting and trapping leases, these three had exploited the family relationships while pretending to look after family interests.  As Cellie's executor, I wanted to divide up all remaining joint Prieto properties.  These 3 cousins were, in general, opposed to this division, realizing they would lose control together with real estate commissions and legal fees.  I did not feel I initially had much support from my brother and sister.  They were not living in Mandeville and were not eager to acknowledge the internal Prieto family problems.  Consequently, they thought I was just being difficult to deal with.

     One of the multiple lot holders within property owned by my mother was Dennis Drury, a local landsman who delved in tax sales and whose property research had initiated the Arnett lawsuit against the Prieto family.  I purchased 8 lots from Dennis in Square 123 for my family and, against all odds, we became friends.  Dennis was not a fan of Cousin Clay who was trying to collect a real estate commission on a house Dennis sold after dropping Clay as the realtor.  Dennis told me that Cousin Ernest had formed a corporation named Circuit Inc years earlier with Oliver Carriere and bought some "sell out" lots in squares owned by my mother at tax sales.  Oliver was an attorney who both disliked the Stoessell family (I suppose due to Cousin Ernest) and was the father-in-law of a granddaughter of my paternal Aunt Margaret Evans.  Everybody, somehow, seems to be related in the South. (lol)  The corporation had hid Cousin Ernest's ownership in these lots from my family.  I swallowed my pride and bought back lots for my family, some in Glendale Heights from Cousin Ernest's daughter Malise and other lots in Jackson Lane Squares from his partner Oliver in their corporation.  Our final break occurred in 1994 when Cousin Ernest profoundly stated to me that just because my family was entitled by Louisiana law to legal access on an old family road through their 300 acre property to our 440 acres (north of Lacombe), his legal connections would prevent us from prevailing in court.  (Ernest was holding out for the Stoessells to pay for a new road across their property to help them develop their land.)  I began to view him as the family Vulture.

     In that same decade (1990s), in an attempt to gain property in the infamous "War of the Fence," Cousin Ernest's sister (Cousin Mary) had her two sons tear down a barbwire fence marking part of our common boundary (between the N/2 and S/2 of the S/2 of the section) on our 160 acres of land fronting Hwy 59, north of I12.  This was the same fence that David and I installed the previous year, following a Carey Smith survey of the boundary.  I had been warned a year earlier by Carey that Cousin Ernest was using an old inaccurate survey by Ned Wilson to claim some of our property.  Because of its location on Hwy 59 near I12, I knew the commercial land value was multiple dollars a square foot.  Cousin Ernest offered a $1 a square foot for the contested property.  Another family member, Cousin Tommy said I should accept Ernest's offer in the interest of family harmony.  (Strangely enough, I didn't feel the family love!)  The boundary dispute tied up the entire section, preventing any sales.  Eventually, after the other three Prieto family branches agreed, Cousins Ernest and Mary were forced to accept a boundary agreement.  But they were not happy with an equal partition.  Cousin Mary was also a real estate agent and later broke her word on selling Londi and me some of their Helenbirg lots in exchange for my agreeing to a joint family lot sale to Tommy D'Luca.  It turns out Tommy D'Luca had offered her a higher price.  Interestingly enough, Tommy D'Luca was not aware of the situation and when he found out, sold Londi and me four lots for Londi to build two "spec" houses on and partially reimbursed us for my loss by paying me a "finder's fee" in the lot sale.  Unlike Cousin Mary, Tommy D'Luca had a code of honor.  When I asked Cousin Mary to return my share of her real estate commission on the family sale, she said "I never give anything back!"  I took that statement to be her personal mantra that she took to her grave.

     Those cousins had a sense of entitlement because of the Prieto's family's long history in Mandeville and St. Tammany Parish.  Their actions and those of Cousin Ernest's son, Cousin Clay, eventually resulted in a family lawsuit.  The Prieto family had given Tommy D'Luca in 2002 a two year purchase option on more Helenbirg lots at a low price, in a deal handled by realtor Cousin Clay.  The deal involved a significant non-refundable deposit which of course was spent immediately by the Prieto family.  (We don't waste any time with non-refundable deposits.)  At the end of two years the option should have expired.  Cousin Clay, in an effort to extend the option, apparently switched the front page on the signed document in his possession, making the closing date dependent on the Prieto family getting permits from the Army Corps of Engineers.  Because the option had gone through many changes and had been signed on separate signature pages sent around to family members, the rest of the family did not have an actual copy of the final document, possessed only by Cousin Clay, the realtor in the deal.  When confronted with the new front page, the family met and agreed the conditions were not what we had agreed to.  However, Aunt Marion's side of the family was wedded to Cousin Clay through his close relationship with Cousin David.   They were worried about Clay losing his realtor's license.  Cousin Mary, a realtor, worked closely with Clay and had to know what he was doing.  But I do not know what her role was in the fraud.

     My sister Marilyn had finally begun to believe me that Cousin Clay was not to be trusted.  While checking filed court records, she discovered Clay received $40,000 for a quitclaim from one of D'Luca's corporations for Clay's ownership in a parcel of "unclaimed" property, i.e., property not on the tax rolls with no record of ownership.  (Don't mess with Marilyn!)  Since Londi and I knew Tommy D'Luca well, I asked him why he paid Clay $40,000 when Clay had no ownership in the property.  He replied that Clay happened to walk through the door when he needed a legal document to start a possessory action to gain title.  LOL.  That's usually a $100 quitclaim for someone with no actual ownership.  Tommy D'Luca was generous with Clay in an obvious payoff but he wasted his money.  The "changed" option lacked a valid closing date for a contract.  D'Luca could see the handwriting on the wall and sold his interest in the option to the Blossman family, a wealthy and politically powerful family in the parish and state who had been recently involved in the First National bank failure (by making unsecured loans) in St. Tammany Parish.  (My grandfather Ernest Prieto originally helped start the precursor to this bank, and Richard Blossman's actions made our bank stock worthless.)  The Blossman family brought in a firm of high-powered New Orleans attornies to enforce the option.  Losing was not the normal option for them and local realtor Dale Stram, the son of Hank Stram the former New Orleans Saints head coach, met with me one evening to pressure me to drop my opposition.  Cousin Clay became increasingly angry, culminating with a dead copperhead being placed on my back-staircase to scare Londi who has a bad heart.  One Wednesday evening, I met with Uncle Preston's family to try to persuade them to join the Stoessells in getting the option declared invalid.  We drank whiskey and discussed the situation.  They did not want to destroy the family harmony and did not want Cousin Clay to lose his realtor's license.  Then someone asked Cousin Don's girlfriend and later wife for her opinion.  She was a pretty, feisty Spanish lady who worked as a local realtor.  She bluntly said something like "Your cousins are stealing from you."  Wow!  They heard it from someone other than me and that settled it.  (I had become too controversal in family relations for them to accept my word at face value! lol).

     The Stoessells with Uncle Preston's family funded the lawsuit which also represented, strangely enough, half of Uncle Clay's side of the family: Cousin Clay's sister and brother (Malise and Ernie) and his Aunt Joan's family.  Actually, by that time Clay's father Cousin Ernest had expressed his distrust of his son to Marilyn.  The rest of the family (Cousins Mary, Clay and Aunt Marion's family) supported the "changed" option and were included as defendants in the lawsuit.  Tensions were high.  One Wednesday evening at Uncle Preston's old home, Cousin Tommy pulled me aside to warn me "to watch my back" because he thought Clay was angry enough to shoot me.  All to no avail because we hired Alex Peragine, an incredibly competent contract lawyer in 2005 who won in court on a Summary Judgment in 2006 in the 22nd District Judical Court and then on Appeal.  I wanted Cousin Clay to also lose his realtor's license, but that was not the court issue, just the lack of a valid contract closing date.  In Prieto family emails, Cousin Clay slandered our lawyer Alex Peragine and called the Stoessell family the Prietos with "Bad Blood" which I took to mean that we were not suitable prey for the family Vampire (LOL), i.e., Clay.  Not long after, Clay confronted me in public on the Mandeville Lakefront with his wife and his lawyer Bill Jones closely watching from Rips Restaurant across Lakefront Drive.  We stood there, yelling at each other, each daring the other to strike first - much like two circling roosters with sharp talons.  (LOL)  Eventually, his wife or attorney persuaded him to retire to the restaurant.  With increasing age, I admit to missing those wild times in the Prieto family.

     Meanwhile, unknown to the Stoessells, Uncle Clay's family ignored the signed and filed boundary agreement (previously discussed) and sold property, using the inaccurate Ned Wilson survey, that included several acres of my brother Lloyd's interior land to a third party.  I think they thought we would not find out before the ten year prescription period for good faith possession by the buyers had passed.  They hadn't counted on Marilyn closely examining the published joint boundary description when the new owners put their purchased property up for sale.  (Once again - Don't mess with Marilyn!)  Cousins Ernest and Mary said they forgot about the boundary agreement, blaming the surveyer and title company for missing it in the courthouse documents.  (I'm not sure how Cousin Ernest persuaded an abstractor to miss the filed boundary agreement but he must have been very persuasive - lol.)  Under threat of a lawsuit with Alex Peragine as his attorney, Lloyd forced the buyers to relinquish their claim.  They were left to fight it out with Uncle Clay's family, the surveyor's insurance company, and the title company for recovering money paid for property that the sellers did not own.  I assume there will be other pieces of property that they have intervened on that we, as yet, do not know about.  Looking back, our extended family relationships were both hilareous and very difficult.  Cousins Ernest and Mary are now (2017) "sadly" deceased, leaving only Cousin Clay to carry on their vendetta.  When Clay and I are gone, perhaps that will end the family problems.  Death tends to even things out.

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Costa Rica



     UNO had (has) an international summer program for students in San Ramon, Costa Rica, run by Marie Kaposchyn, a talented UNO faculty member of Russian and French descent.  San Ramon is an hours drive northwest of San Jose, and an hours drive west to Punta Arenas on the Gulf of Nicoya on the Pacific Ocean.  San Ramon is in the western half of the country which lies in a rain shadow of the central mountains, because the prevailing winds are from the east, i.e., dry compared to the eastern half of the country.  I taught in San Ramon for three summers in 1998, 1999 and 2003.  During the summer program, the faculty lived with local families.  Ticos (the people) are far more Spanish than mestizo and resemble Italians (with flared ears) in looks.  For two of the summers, I stayed in Ana Pineda's home and one summer in Maria Estare Salazar's home.  At that time the college courses (taught in English) were in classrooms rented from the Universidad de Costa Rica - Sede de Occidente, which was closed during the summer.  Londi came down the last summer in 2003 but did not go to San Ramon, going instead to Quepos on the Pacific where she met us on a weekend fieldtrip.

     Maria Estare was a "trip", basically a ball of fire who enjoyed life to the fullest.  Ana was much more sedate, serving as a surrogate mother.  My first year, I met an American inlaw of Ana who had married a Costa Rican girl.  He described an interesting financial experience in Costa Rica which explained his view of doing business with Ticos.  After years of spending summers in Costa Rica, he decided to buy a beautiful lot, but the transaction wasn't complete when he left that fall.  He left his closest Costa Rican friend with the power of attorney to complete the transaction.  But the money was never spent, and upon arriving back in Costa Rica, he discovered his friend had bought the property for himself.  He would have nothing to do with his former friend that summer but they both attended the same party near the end of the summer.  His former friend came up to him and said "I do not understand your anger towards me.  Nothing has changed.  You didn't own this property last summer and you do not own it now.  So why are you mad at me?" (LOL).

     The UNO summer program in San Ramon is not as expensive as the one in Innsbruch, so there were a higher percentage of UNO students, probably 50% of the group.  The informality of the program and Marie's laid-back method of running it appealed to me.  She was there at the start of the program, then left to take students to France for a short program, returning near the end.  While she was gone I felt free to be the independent academic.  I happily tried to drive her second-in-command, either Stephanie Lyman (English professor) or Elaine Brooks (Spanish professor), nuts.  The faculty were remarkably open about themselves.  The last summer I taught, an English professor was part of the faculty.  He had weird mannerisms I thought, so one night while drinking beer, I asked him.  "Are you gay?" To which he replied. "I'm an English professor. What do you think?"  Wow - talk about sterotypes. (LOL).  Another faculty member, Michael Huelschoff, a political science professor, was convinced my dislike of authority stemmed from a genetic disorder aggravated by my German ancestors (serfs) not being being beaten enough by his German ancestors (lords) - LOL.  The comaraderie made it fun to be there: teaching, chugging guaro with the students, and interacting with the local families.  Guaro is the national drink, made from sugar cane.  It is described as having a sweet taste; however, I think it tastes like furniture polish but goes down better - like ouzo.

     Unfortunately, my Spanish did not improve much, due to my poor hearing - English is tough enough for me.  The local geographic terrain is hilly with coffee-growing fincas and a scattering of mostly dormant volcanoes within an hour's ride in the central area of Costa Rica.  Interestingly, uncultivated hillsides are often covered with what looked like an intricate design of small (20 ft long) v-shaped slumps which I think are related to old Mayan farm terraces.  Further west along the coast, wave-cut cliffs of basalt (marking the general surface scarp of an offshore subduction zone) were intermingled with beautiful sand beaches.  The active subduction zone offshore was where oceanic crust is being subducted eastward under Costa Rica, producing andesitic magmas further inland for the active volcanoes (e.g., Arenal and Poas).  The geology is fascinating to me.  Further east in the more mountaneous central and eastern areas are the beautiful whitewater rivers where we would take the students on rafting trips.  Marie was (is) a great boss and this was really a wonderful international program for students to experience.

     There was a small wildlife preserve outside our classroom area in San Ramon where you could see howler monkeys in branches along with a large boa constrictor hanging from a tree.  He actually seemed harmless, swaying gently in the breeze.  One day, after taking a test, my students individually left the classroom to sit outside, waiting for the rest of the students to finish.  When checking on them, a girl pointed out a colorful snake with bands of red, yellow, and black that had just crawled over her leg.  I checked out that snake repeating to myself "red and yellow, kill a fellow; red and black, friend of Jack".  Wow, it was a coral snake and she had not been bit!

     Each summer the students would do a zip line trip in the mountains and go on a whitewater rafting trip on the Rio Pacuare in the eastern portion of the country.  This was real jungle country and we saw brightly colored parrots and toucans (with their orange beaks) along the river's banks.  On my first rafting trip, the raft tilted in a big rapid (class 4 or 5) and I was thrown out.  Naturally, I yelled "Pura Vida" and grabbed hold of the student sitting next to me and he came with me.  As he slid out, he grabbed another student and in a chain reaction we all ended up in the water.  This incident made me into an instant celebrity.  After that, the students were hesitant about sitting next to me in a raft (LOL).

     On one long weekend, another faculty member (Fine Arts professor) and I went touring the "hippy" northwest Pacific coast in Guanacaste.  This was a cool wilderness experience, complete with a "crooked" cop, beautiful white sand beaches and shallow streams that our rental car could ford.  The cop, according to his uniform, was actually a pistol-carrying member of the local waterworks municipality.  He pulled us over and told us our vehicle lacked a permit and to pay him a fine or go to jail.  We told him we knew he wasn't a real policeman and to bug off (LOL).  And Wow - He did.  The success of that verbal exchange was due to my companion's fluent Spanish.  I thought we were in big trouble.  Later that trip, an American expatriate in a bar told us he had been constantly stopped and forced to pay a bribe to keep his old motorcycle.  This continued until one day, he climbed off the motorcycle and told the cop to take it and started to walk away.  The cop replied he didn't want the damn motorcycle.  And they stopped harassing him after that.

     The faculty also went together on day trips on the weekend, exploring a local waterfall and visiting wildlife preserves through Marie's connections.  We once went to a Costa Rican University reception at a fancy resort (former presidential house) in a wildlife preserve where we had a buffet lunch.  I was serving myself in line and reached out to snag a tasty treat only to tip the tray over, spilling its contents.  There was a gasp of horror among the kitchen staff, racing around to pick up the food off the floor.  I politely asked for another dish (LOL).  How did Marie put up with me?  On one trip to the waterfall, I tossed a stream pebble in the direction of Maria Estare's maid.  Upon examination, the pebble was heart shaped, which Maria Estare said meant a wedding proposal.  Luckily for both of us, I was already married.  I learned to be careful of tossing pebbles at Ticas!  It was a fun time.  The students went on a one day excursion to Volcan Poas, a beautiful active volcanoe with a road up to the rim, allowing us to look deep into an enormous crater.  There were big yellow clouds of sulfer dioxide rising from vents in the crater, much as you see in Yellowstone, which would blow over the edge of the crater, engulfing us in its rotten egg smell.  I always somehow managed to control myself and not toss a student in as a tribute to a Mayan God - but I did think seriously about doing so.  The students also went on a weekend excursion to Volcan Arenal near Fortuna where students and faculty drank margaritas, etc, lounged in hot water pools, while looking up at the volcano to see balls of red hot lava roll down its sides.  This is truly spectacular at night.  These were good trips.  And on the drive to Arenal, we stopped at the Quaker settlement of Monteverde (green mountain) with its cloud forest and nature paths.  Admittedly, I don't remember much about Monteverde (apparently, I always had too much guaro) except that it is considered an environmental gem in regards to nature preservation.  But I do remember this quaint meeting hall where you could sit and meditate without talking - not hard to do when recovering from drinking guaro.

     We also usually had a fun day in San Jose visiting the big city market as well as to meet the president and have a guided tour of the presidental palace.  Marie had connections wiht the persident through her husband's business dealings!  In one of the buildings, there were these magnificent rooms with the portraits of past presidents (leaders) of Costa Rica.  I examined the paintings carefully, only to discover there wasn't one of William Walker (an American adventurer who invaded Costa Rica after the American Civil War).  And I innocently asked our guide where his portrait was.  We were probably not invited back the next year.  But to her credit, Marie put up with me.

     But the big weekend field trip was to Quepos and Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific.  We drove south to Quepos down the coast, crossing rickty wooden bridges overlooking big, fat, lazy crocodiles sunning themselves.  The park is a small headland sticking out into the ocean, isolated at high tide.  This is a beautiful area to hike in and to swim on the adjacent beaches.  Quepos is an international playground, full of energy and vibrance.  Londi came in 2003 and we stayed at the Hotel La Mariposa (Butterfly), probably the prettiest hotel I've ever stayed in.  At the time we had Ramona (a rescued dog with us) and had to sneak her in and out of our room under my shirt - the hotel staff knew what we were doing and ignored our transgressions.  It was somewhat like a second honeymoon - although we didn't have a honeymoon after we married.  The trip to Europe where I proposed to Londi at Zermatt was the honeymoon.

     The year before (2002), Londi's brother Scott Harrington was developing a residential project near Quepos.  When I think of Scott, I think of Jimmy Buffet's song: "A Pirate Looks at Forty".  He had moved to Costa Rica from Isle Mirada in the Florida Keys where he ran an excursion business with boats and an ultralight plane.  Scott had previously been a crop-duster pilot and survived his share of crashes.

Yes I am a pirate, two hundred years too late
The cannons don't thunder, there's nothing to plunder
I'm an over-forty victim of fate
Arriving too late, arriving too late
I've done a bit of smuggling, I've run my share of grass
I made enough money to buy Miami, but I pissed it away so fast
Never meant to last, never meant to last


     Like all pirates, Scott had a checkered past but with a charismatic way about him.  I figured that (like William Walker) his goal was to plunder Costa Rica (LOL).  A group of wealthy American investors backed his project, and we went down to check out buying a lot.  To the east of the project were high mountains, up to 12,000 feet, and to the west was the Pacific Ocean, but both were out of sight.  The land was hilly, covered with flowering plants, bordering a large river, and featured nature preservation areas.  Scott with Tanya, his beautiful Brazilian girlfriend (later wife), had built this really cool house with a stable underneath it for horses and a burro.  The burro was sex-addicted to the horses - horny little fella.  There was also this great bar on the other side of the river, and Scott planned to use a zip line over the river to reach it.  I wasn't sure how we would get back across the river but after a night of drinking, it probably wasn't important.  So of course we ended up buying a lot for (I think) $50,000 on a hill.  Owning land in Costa Rica is complicated.  You have to set up a corporation that is controlled by Costa Ricans so ownership always seemed questionable to me, but then, so is life.

     Later that year we went back to Costa Rica and met with Londi's mother Yvonne and stepfather Gaston Tyson.  David also came.  It was a family reunion!  The trip began with Scott, Tanya, Londi, and I crossing the mountains from the east and driving down a nearly impassable road to reach the development.  We saw several quetzales, those beautiful, purple and green chicken-size birds that the national currency of Guatemala is named for.  The first night we got sauteed (with alcohol) in a hot tub that had been dug into the side of a hill.  The floor of the hot tub was the top of a metal barbecue pit used to heat it - very ingenious.  At the development, we checked out our lot (It was still there.) while David harrased the sex-addicted burro, riding it around!  And the entire family went on a horseback trail ride and did the obligatory zip line tour.  This was Costa Rica at its best.

     My Costa Rican experiences eventually went from love of the country to dislike of being there as I witnessed the attitude of the Ticos towards domestic animals.  Honestly, this just reflects my genetic makeup towards saving animals.  Ticos apparently love the idea of preserving nature because that brings tourists and money.  But they positively hate cats and appear to lack empathy or compassion towards dogs and horses.  Packs of starving dogs roamed the streets and were rounded up as Big Cat food when the circus came to town.  Trail horses had neck wounds from vampire bats, disconcerting on a trail ride to see your horse has an open wound where a vampire bat sucked blood each night.  I asked Ana's adult daughter what she thought when seeing a man hit a puppy with a baseball bat.  The puppy had wandered into my classroom earlier that day and was later in the man's way on the sidewalk, so he broke its leg and left it to die.  She replied "I don't look."  I saw more domestic animal abuse in Costa Rica than in central Yucatan which is saying a lot.  And partially because of that, we sold our investment lot near Quepos in late 2005, after Hurricane Katrina hit the New Orleans area.  Scott bought it back for $55,000 which helped us pay for Katrina's costs.  About the puppy - One of my students rescued the puppy, had its leg set, and brought it home with her.  That same summer, I provided medical aid to save another dog, overloaded with ticks, on the university campus.  When I asked the university workers to hold him while I worked on him, they ran their hands across their throats to signal killing the dog.  I brought one of the strays back to Louisiana at the end of the session: Ramona, later renamed Josey who died in 2016.  She was a sweet little 30 pounder, as long as you didn't mess with her.  She loved to eat and was eventually shaped like a water melon with 4 short legs, one of those small mountain feist size dogs that was originally bred as a food source.  In 2004, I tried to get the first dog that I had provided help for (the previous summer) sent to me in the states. My faculty friend Kraig Derstler, teaching in the program that summer, told me the university personnel were acting as though the dog was now their mascot and were providing for it.  And Marie recently (2018) told me there is a local lady in San Ramon doing dog rescue.  So perhaps my clumsy rescue efforts changed some local attitudes.

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Wetlands' Research in Pine Savannah



     A little background information needs to be presented.  I used to think of wetlands as being areas such as swamps and marshes.  But this mindset changed after dealing with the Army Corps of Engineers while handling land inherited from Cellie.  The vast majority of wetlands overseen by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USAEC) are not marshes and swamps but forests without permanent standing water, e.g., pine savannah in Louisiana.  They have a ground-water table near the earth's surface which causes flooding after heavy rainfall.  The actual depth to the ground-water table changes with the season, the amount and type of vegetation, and rainfall amounts.  In the summer when photosynthesis is at a maximum, plants draw enough ground water to significantly lower the depth to the ground-water table.  The reverse occurs in winter.  Trees are most effective in lowering the ground water table, so clear cut areas are more likely to be classified as wetlands than heavily forested area.

     In theory, wetland areas should be delineated by the ground-water table of an area.  But because of fairly rapid temporal movements of the ground-water table, the location would have to be monitored for a couple of years to get an accurate average depth.  So because these forested areas are often not flooded and appear dry, The USAEC uses indicators to decide if an area classifies as a wetland.  The indicators are of three types: (1) the presence of a majority of hydric (wetland) plants, (2) remanents (drift lines, etc) on the ground surface showing that surface flooding occurred; and (3) soil morphology criteria indicating the soil was saturated near the surface.  Most wetland delineations are done by biologists and they are heavily dependent upon the use of plants.  However, many plants grow in both wetlands and in non-wetland areas, which often makes the delineation unreliable and results in more areas being classified as wetlands.  The hydrology indicators for flooding are often absent so they are the most unreliable for indicating an area is non-wetlands.  The soil criteria is based on water-saturated soil being anoxic which drives certain chemical reactions such as the reduction of iron and manganese, causing changes in soil color (brown to black).  These indicators are reliable but take many years to develop.  I think the USACE emphasizes using plants because more areas are delineated as wetlands with this criteria.

     My interests in environmental issues drove me to develop a research program in wetland delineation.  I decided to monitor the ground-water table over a two year period on two 30 acre plots of family property and compare the delineation from the location of the water table to those delineated by the USAEC with their use of indicators.  To develop my background, I took several LSU field course in wetland delineation and met Arville Touchet who became my mentor.  We would drill shallow (3 ft) boreholes and do the soil morphology.  I remember him determining from the soil structure if heavy equipment had disturbed an area in the past 25 year.  Arville was the former federal soil scientist for Louisiana and is the epitomy of a Louisiana Cajun, telling stories of his work in soil science all over the world in his unique accent.  The Corps didn't like the fact that his good reputation made it difficult to challenge his delineations.  Arville speaks fluent Cajun French and he and his wife Annie often visited us in Mandeville.  I once persuaded him to give a talk at UNO on soil development in South Louisiana.  Londi loved Arville and Annie.  They live on Cow Island near Abbeville and grew up in that area.  My family's duck hunting lease on Money Island (near Pecan Island) was south of Cow Island and I know the area well.  Arville did all the family wetland delinations in land development, and I so enjoyed those times when we worked together.

     I set up my research program with the help of David, Bobby Malanders (Chief), and Miles Gautreaux (Robin's husband).  We cut a grid of straight lines through the woods on both plots, and set every hundred feet a vertical hole for a pvc pipe to measure the depth to the water table.  Working with Chief in the woods was particularly interesting.  He was a combat veteran from Viet Nam and sometimes prone (as he put it) to having flashbacks.  I never knew as I worked along the path if Bobby might think I was a "gook" coming up on him.  But he was always sane, just pulling my leg.

     Over the next two years, I monitored the depths to the water table on a weekly basis and kept track of temperature and rainfall (with rain gauges).  The wetland delineations done from the measured water table data didn't show a precise correlation with my delineations using the USAEC indicators.  Journal editors in wetlands research were biologists and they didn't trust my plant identifications used in my delineations with the USAEC indicators.  I must admit, with my background as a geologist and geochemist, one species of grass, sedge, or reed often looks like another species of grass, sedge, or reed to me.  I needed official delineations from the Corps to compare with my delineations from water table data.  By federal policy stemming from law, the Corps is supposed to do delineations on private plots less than 40 acres within a few months.  However, the Corps supervisors in New Orleans knew I was a scientist doing research with unknown results (to them) and didn't cooperate.  As good bureaucrats, they hunkered down and did nothing.  It would have taken years of effort, filing a lawsuit, to get them to follow the law, and that was too much time to waste.  So the data was never published.  But I loved working in the woods, and the practical knowledge of understanding wetland delineations proved invaluable when dealing with land developers.



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Mandeville Life and David Growing Up



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Land Development, Square 74, Spec. Houses, Old Mandeville Woods



     Cellie had held on to nearly all of her woodlands throughout her life.  I loved the woods, seeing the deer and turkeys, and hated to see it developed.  And Mandeville was such a picturesque community, much like Sausalito across the bay from San Francisco.  Imagine how Sausalito would be destroyed (probably has) if half of San Francisco's poppulation moved north across the Golden Gate Bridge.  That is the future for Mandeville.  The New Orleans area (the South Side of Lake Pontchartrain) is on the old Mississippi delta and sinking and flooding.  The only dry land to build on are the Pleistocene terraces, north of Lake Pontchartrain of which Mandeville is the closest.  More and more people were (are) moving north from New Orleans, Metairie, and Chalmette to escape the hustle and crime of Big Easy.  There is so much money in development that it can't be held back.  Eventually, our land was going to be developed into homesites.  I soon realized, all I could do was hold out for moderate lot sizes and get agreements not to clear-cut the trees.

     Developers were eager to approach us to buy land from us for subdivisions.  Naturally, most of them wanted to jam as many houses as possible to maximize their profits (i.e., because of their fiduciary responsibility to themselves - LOL).  They wanted wetlands given to them (as part of the sale) for free even though the cost at that time to mitigate the wetlands was only 1/10th to 1/20th the cost of the dry land.  They wanted you to go to bat for them with the parish to get the necessary zoning for small lots.   We were harassed constantly by developers.  But on the other side were the people who had already moved into nearby subdivisions and wanted to stop all future developments by asking for zoning lot sizes as much as 5 acres, making future subdivisions unprofitable, i.e., the NIMBYs (not in my back yard).  The parish officials wanted the votes of the new residents and always sided with them, actually telling me at a meeting that the land-owning families were greedy parasites.  There were always threats of lawsuits with the parish not to change the rules for land owners and for developers.  In the end, developers made the necessary payoffs to parish slush-fund accounts, supposedly for drainage improvements, etc and sometimes under the table to parish officials for the necessary zoning.  As a land owner I began to distrust nearly everyone when it came to development.

     The property the developers most wanted for a subdivision was a quarter section bordering Hwy 1088 and Soult Street.  This was where the "Old Place" had been, the Family Barn, pasture and woods where we had riden horses as children and hunted.  I would often take off in the afternoon to walk those woods to be in spiritual touch with Cellie and my Grandfather who died before I was born.  My family's blood was in that land and it was a personal tragedy to destroy those woods with houses.  But it was inevitable, given its close location, within a mile, to Mandevile.

     In the 80s, Rogers Smith, a local developer had used 20 acres of joint Prieto property to develop Fox Run, a beautiful, small subdivision off Sharp Road.  My family did not want to sell its 5 acre share and Rogers had gone along with us, cutting out 5 acres and building the subdivision around it.  Eventually we sold our property to him at twice what we would have gotten in the original offer.  His wife Harriet was a licensed contractor and built the houses and they made good money off of Fox Run.  Rogers, a marine architect and engineer, had flown fighter Air Force planes in the 1950s.  He was an honest man who could do a deal on a handshake.  We had many interesting conversations and over the years walked a lot of woods, building up a friendship that lasted til his death in 2014.  Rogers was the one developer I wanted to work with, but he didn't have the resources to develop a quarter section.  Gary Intravia and Kelly McHugh were also local developers who operated on a larger scale, having developed Quail Creek on adjacent property purchased from my Uncle Clay.  Gary and Kelly brought in Rogers as a partner to convince me to sell to them.  They agreed to use larger lot sizes than in Quail Creek, preserve trees if possible, and named the subdivision "The Woodlands".  Over the next several years, 373 homes were built in The Woodlands.  My 1/3rd share of the land proceeds gave me the independence to not have to play politics at UNO, funded much of my research, our Lakeshore lifestyle, and various businesses interests that Londi and I became involved in.  I am profoundly grateful to my grandfather John Ernest Prieto for his land accumulations for future generations!  He was the family entrepreneur.

     Londi had always wanted to build houses and use her creativity to make them special.  I had 3 wooded acres, the north half of Square 74, a block off the Mandeville lakefront and across from the harbor.  The south half of the square was owned by Aunt Marion and used as the local baseball park.  The land was beautiful, backing up to a swamp bordering Little Bayou Castine.  I wanted to preserve the land by scattering houses through the remaining woods in an environmentally sensitive way.  We had accumulated some money from land sales in The Woodlands.  So while running Piffany Oaks, Londi, acting as the unlicensed general contractor, built 5 rental houses on this land.  She hired Reggie, an experienced framer from Slidell who had run the framing crew that built Thibodeaux's Music Hall, as her assistant for building the first two houses.  Reggie had become our good friend during the building of the music hall.  He was a likeable guy, but was the product of his background.  Reggie had served time for manslaughter in a barroom fight and wasn't to be messed with.  If Londi was to learn how to deal with crews, he would be good tutor.  But he was embarrassed by Londi telling him what to do in front of the crews.  One day Reggie's wife came over to ask me to please find out what Londi wanted done each day and come tell him on the job site.  Sadly, I had to tell him he had to get with modern times and deal with women as equals.  The rental houses were raised 10 feet, sitting on steel or concrete block pilings and built extra strong to survive hurricanes.  We used 12 inch spacing on the 2x12 floor joists and 16 inch spacing on 2x8 ceiling and roof rafters.  Each house had a chainlink fenced yard for pets.  Parking was underneath to reduce the size of the building footprint.  And the houses never flooded when the summer and fall hurricanes pushed water from the lake and nearby bayous over the land.  The project, known as Square 74 Development, was a great financial success and for years the town used it to showcase how builders could preserve the environment.  We sold the development a year after Hurricane Katrina.  By that time, we had officially got Mandeville to approve a development plat with green spaces and a total of 7 house sites, making it difficult for future developers to destroy the park-like atmosphere.

     In early 2000, Londi formed a partnership (Chateau Nouveau, LLC) with local builder and licensed contractor Lloyd (Guy) Songe to build 2 spec houses in the Helenbirg area and 2 along Soult Street.  Throughout all this time, her Piffany Oaks manager Angela stayed with her to help manage Chateau Nouveau, LLC.  Londi was full of energy and as one of our carpenters put it "She could keep an army of carpenters busy."  In 2003, she used her share of the proceeds from selling Piffany Oaks to finance her share of a partnership with Guy and me to develop Old Mandeville Woods, a heavily wooded subdivision on three of my squares along the west side of Soult Street between Labarre and Preval Streets.  The inspiration for Old Mandeville Woods is expressed in my poem below.

Have you worked in the heat of the summer sun in south Louisiana -
When far away, there's the sound of thunder and the storm clouds begin to roll.
The cool wet wind sweeps away the summer heat and brings the rain.
It's just another south Louisiana rainstorm.

In the old days, homes were built in the woods to escape the summer heat.
The pines and oaks sheltered the land and cooled the surface below.
But times changed and the woods were cut
and replaced with lawns and concrete and black tar.
And now the summer heat is broken
only when thunder rolls and brings the summer rain.

Old Mandeville Woods is a remembrance of an earlier time.
We've surrounded each house and lawn with green woods
to cool the land like the summer rain on a hot summer day.
Come and see what we've done in the coolness of the woods.


     Old Mandeville Woods was built to preserve the woods with wildlife easements surrounding 36 home sites on the 20 acres.  It was an attempt to produce a living environment that blended in harmony with the forest.  The three squares had once been part of the defunct Jackson Lane Subdivision (back in the early 1900s) with 180 33' x 110' lots, the grandfathered zoning would have permitted 84 small building sites.  But our dream was to keep the land beautiful, involving large lots (90'x 226') with 50'-wide wildlife easements in front and back of the building sites.  The subdivision was not without controversy with land planners.  Previous subdivisions had always put all the green space in one area and let the homeowners fill their lots with uninterrupted lawns.  In addition, our good friend Mary Grace Knapp, a personal injury and divorce attorney, owned half a square west of the the front entrance and took it personally that I didn't sell part of the first square to her.  Our development destroyed that friendship but it had to be.  Local road developer Kevin McDonald of McDonald Construction put in the roads and the sewer, water, gas, and underground electric lines.  I remember telling Kevin at the start of the project "Let's make something that we can both be proud of."  Kevin is a quiet, soft-spoken guy whose word is his bond.  He and his crews were great to work with.  Sadly, we later found that while the residents liked to talk about preserving the environment, they almost invariably meant their neighbors doing so and not themselves.  Nearby residents, outside of the subdivision, congratulated us on keeping the houses hidden behind trees in green spaces but when asked to consider planting green spaces in front of their homes, always declined.  We couldn't control the selfishness in human nature, a hard lesson learned by many an environmentalist.

     Developers hate homeowner associations because they often become political and try to force concessions out of the developer.  To prevent having to deal with this scenario, we incorporated the land into Mandeville so the city would eventually have the responsibility of enforcing the wildlife restrictions.  To do that, the parish had to agree to the city taking in the land.  This involved paying a negotiated amount into a fund to pay for any future drainage problems from the development.  In reality, we knew this to be a slush fund and if the money went for drainage, it was usually used to correct drainage problems elsewhere.  We negotiated the amount with Joe Impastato, a parish councilman who went to prison several years later for taking kickbacks on FEMA debris-removal contracts.  I considered the negotiations to be a shakedown.

     While Chateau Nouveau (Londi and Guy) built houses, I worked on the landscaping, trying to create "designer" woods by clearing out dead undergrowth, adding native plants, and putting down mulch.  This was labor intensive work.  The idea was to inspire future homeowners to keep it up (LOL).  Gerry Henries, a retired highway and industry construction man worked with me along with others during this time.  Gerry became a good friend for life.  He was from New Orleans but had spent much of his youth in Mandeville.  To complete the subdivision we put a 20 to 25 ft artistic steel Arch over the entrance.  The Arch had a water-cut design of a forest and was built to highway standards, withstanding Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  The last lot was sold in 2016; however, the subdivision had been completed years earlier and was taken over by the city, with the exception of the Arch which the Public Works Director Joe Mistich deemed a safety hazard.  He was right.  Imagine the lawsuit if it collapsed onto a car.  The residents wanted us to maintain the Arch for perpetuity, threatening to take us to court.  We decided to remove it.  Guy was out of the picture because Chateau Nouveau had long since been dissolved, and I was in North Carolina.  One early morning in 2016, Londi and Kevin McDaniel showed up with a crane and his work crew to take it down.  The Arch would be expensive to remove and would probably have to be sold as scrap.  Londi was met on site with city officials and a noisy crowd of residents protesting the Arch removal and threatening legal action.  Kevin advised Londi to sell the Arch to a resident who said he would buy it.  On the spot she sold the Arch for $500, less than 2 cents on the dollar.  The city official told him they would work out a deal to take it into the city and maintain it.  Our responsibilities were over with Old Mandeville Woods.  We had tried to create something beautiful but the homeowners had begun ignoring the wildlife easements as soon as Mandeville stopped enforcing them.  Even our likeable civil engineer David Scalfano, who drew up the subdivision plat with the easements, ignored them when building his home.  We felt betrayed.  Today, it is certainly the most wooded subdivision in Mandeville; but looking back, I wouldn't try to do it again.  People talk about loving trees and nature but they want to live in houses with manicured lawns.

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Hydrology Research in Yucatan and South Louisiana



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Cameron, Logan and SFAS



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Hurricanes Katrina and Rita



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© 2017 Ron Stoessell