OAK GROVE — Galvez resident Craig Daniels worked intently to stick tiny, brightly colored square stickers onto a table-sized map of Ascension Parish, but he had a hard time doing it.
Red, blue, yellow, purple and green, each piece represented a form of housing and commerce that population and job growth could spur over the next 25 years.
The pieces included densely packed subdivisions with surrounding open space, suburban neighborhoods, industrial plants, commercial centers or mixed-use, "main street"-style developments akin to Baton Rouge's Perkins Rowe.
All were options for a couple hundred people to try to fit on maps of Ascension Parish this past week in three-parish government "visioning workshops" led by consultants with the Center for Planning Excellence. The meetings were aimed at kick-starting major revisions to the parish's comprehensive plan and forcing the public to take a first swipe at the tough planning decisions necessary for more population.
But as all other tables failed to do in the workshops in Oak Grove, Gonzales and Donaldsonville, Daniels' group was unable to fit most of the pieces on their map, though they had plenty of ideas for infrastructure.
Afterward, Daniels said his group at Oak Grove Primary School on June 4 couldn't get their pieces down because other participants would take pieces off after he placed them, objecting to growth that he felt would be hard to avoid.
"It's gonna happen," he said later.
Between 2000 and 2017, Ascension Parish grew by 60.4 percent, adding more than 46,300 people. The rate was fastest in Louisiana, census estimates show.
Pointing to a 2018 projection from the Capital Region Planning Commission that predicts the Baton Rouge metro area, which includes East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, Ascension, Livingston and Iberville parishes, will have more than 1 million people by 2042, CPEX consultants based the map exercise on the estimates for Ascension: another 66,000 people, 25,000 more homes and 65,000 more jobs. Ascension had 122,928 people in 2017, census estimates say.
Janet Tharp, CPEX's director of planning, explained to participants that one aspect of the sticker exercise would be to consider creating new growth with more "walkable" environments where homes, schools and work could be closer together, cutting road trips and infrastructure costs as the parish grows.
Census estimates from 2015 that Tharp presented say the majority of people working in Ascension live outside the parish, yet the majority of people living in Ascension work outside the parish.
But in Oak Grove and in Gonzales, on June 5, several participants pressed for no or little growth without building new infrastructure first.
Kathryn Goppelt, a Republican Party official and longtime critic of the parish's growth policies, presented a blank map calling for a wholesale moratorium on building with plenty of infrastructure work. Others were not as sweeping with strong growth restrictions but still wanted them until infrastructure improved.
"As you can tell, there are not very many stickers on our map because of the fact that until we feel like we have adequate infrastructure, we are gridlocked," Kathy Edmonston, the parish's representative on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said of her group's work June 4 in Oak Grove.
That stance was in marked contrast to participants June 6 at Lowery Elementary School in Donaldsonville where the question was how to spur growth.
"What comes first? The chicken or the egg," Donaldsonville City Councilman Raymond Aucoin asked at one table. "Do the people come to the developments or do the developments make the people come?"
Divided by the Mississippi River, eastern and western Ascension are on opposite sides of the growth coin and the parish's racial divide. Eastern Ascension, in particular the north, trends more white Republican and is growing fast. Western Ascension trends more black and Democratic and has had little population growth.
Eastern Ascension has well-regarded schools, high income and the market cache but is short on infrastructure and easily developable land not in the flood plain. Western Ascension has plenty of land and a historic city center with sidewalks and municipal services. Yet the area also has traditionally under-performing public schools and in some parts poverty and persistent crime.
Few participants in Gonzales and Oak Grove suggested the west bank for major residential and commercial growth even as they struggled fitting that growth in eastern Ascension. Western Ascension was often only eyed for heavy industry.
In Donaldsonville, participants set aside some areas for industry but also put down new homes, commercial hubs and mixed-use centers in the area's thousands of acres of cane fields.
But Cherish Navarre, 33, a homemaker and substitute teacher from Donaldsonville, said that while public schools in western Ascension have great teachers, they still have student behavioral problems that she felt would continue until young people had more to do.
"Why would somebody want to move across the river to Donaldsonville? What would that child do," Navarre asked.
The table moderator pointed out that the increasing loss of wetlands in south Louisiana is pushing people north, up Bayou Lafourche, potentially leaving western Ascension as a place for the displaced. For those arriving from farther south in the state, the Mississippi won't be the same barrier.
Parish officials watching the meetings said they heard residents' calls.
"Well, I'm hearing infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. I'm hearing transportation, drainage; transportation, drainage; transportation, drainage," Jerome Fournier, Ascension's planning director, said after meetings in Oak Grove and Gonzales.
But Fournier added that unless the Parish Council chooses to adopt a moratorium, the parish can't stop growth. It will continue under the parish's existing rules until Ascension adopts a plan and ordinances changes. When asked, Fournier added that parish officials have had early discussions on setting aside funds to buy or otherwise preserve land for open space, possibly with new impact fees.
Participants were urged to dream big on infrastructure. Several called for new bike trails on both Mississippi River levees. A few keyed in on the proposed commuter rail between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Some also called for new bridges over the Mississippi or the Amite River.
Many of the improvements were on familiar state highways often eyed for work: La. 44, Airline Highway, La. 431, La. 621, La. 3127, La. 1 and the I-10 overpasses at La. 74 and the Cornerview Road.
Some, such as a popular proposal to widen four-lane Airline to six lanes between the East Baton Rouge Parish line and Sorrento, were part of a $135 million parish proposal in 2012 for a new half-cent sales tax for roads.
With a mix of new sales tax and state revenue, that tax plan would have spent $41 million to improve intersections and widen Airline to six lanes between La. 42 and Roddy Road, which is just short of Sorrento. Ascension voters soundly rejected the tax.
Current parish officials have shifted to the $45 million Move Ascension road program funded with one-time surplus, impact fees and state resources. With diminished funds, the program tackles smaller-scale road improvements focused on safety and traffic flow.
When the failure of the half-cent tax was raised by one table in Gonzales that wanted Airline Highway widened, the responses were mixed. Some didn't remember the tax plan. Others said they voted no then.
"Maybe this time," Melanie Usry, 60, of Dutchtown, shot back.
But her husband, Terry Usry, 61, said people don't want to hear about government requests for additional revenue when the government has made plenty of proposals through the years and not seen them through.
The work of the Usrys and many others is expected to lead to refined land use maps that will be unveiled later this summer, shaping a final vision for the parish at year's end.
Adrienne Conish, 45, of Gonzales, said she had hope from the process. Like Terry Usry, she said the parish has had plenty of plans and studies, including a failed master plan revision in 2009, but it can succeed this time: "If they do what they say they are going to do and make the best use of the taxpayer dollars."