GONZALES — As Ascension political leaders consider a temporary halt on new development, the parish Planning Commission this week moved forward with a huge new subdivision — but with the caveat that the developer agreed to pay for at least part of necessary road improvements.
In one of its first acts Wednesday night, the Ascension Parish Planning Commission, with five new members on the board, backed the 780-home Riverton subdivision off La. 22.
The vote ensures the subdivision will not be subject to a proposed moratorium on new subdivisions under consideration by the Parish Council. Members, particularly those new to the council, have expressed concerns that fast-growing Ascension is not able to handle new developments without further investment in the parish’s roads and drainage.
About an hour after the new five members and one incumbent commissioner were sworn in, the commission voted 4-2 for the 260-acre neighborhood planned by Sorrento businessman Grady Melancon just west of heavily traveled La. 44 in Burnside. Commission Chairman Matt Pryor did not vote. He only votes if there is a tie on the seven-member body.
The new commissioners and incumbent Morrie Bishop were seated after the outgoing members endured criticism that claimed they were unwilling to say no to projects with questionable drainage and inadequate roads, even when the parish recommended the developments be denied.
For Riverton, the parish planning staff recommended denial because of unfinished drainage studies and their concerns over the massive subdivision’s impact on roads. The future neighborhood will generate 7,000 vehicle trips per day when it’s completed in about 10 years and will clog not only La. 22 but intersections along La. 44, including the Interstate 10 interchange at Burnside, without major highway improvements, parish officials said.
But the recommendation to deny, made under recently ousted Planning Director Ricky Compton, came before Melancon and parish officials reached a deal on road impact fees — at a time when a future road impact fee ordinance and the building moratorium are headed to the Parish Council.
Jared “Burger” Beiriger, co-owner of Quality Engineering, the firm representing Melancon, said under the offer the fees would generate $1,000 per lot at a minimum but would increase to whatever fee that is adopted in an impact fee ordinance.
“So we’re not trying to circumvent any new, any coming ordinance. We’re just saying we’re volunteering $1,000, and if the council decides they are passing one, then we’ll abide by the new one,” Beiriger said.
The $1,000 fee would generate $780,000 at the least and could raise as much as $1.5 million if the Parish Council adopts the ordinance’s fee schedule as proposed.
Under the proposed ordinance, fees for homes would average about $1,900 per lot, though some on the council think that’s too low.
“So this is the pathway I understand that my constituents want to go,” Councilman Bill Dawson, who represents the Burnside area and was on hand for the negotiations between Melancon and the administration, said of the impact fees.
Riverton once had been a larger, more dense traditional neighborhood development but never got off the ground. The project is coming back as a smaller standard subdivision in a growing section of Ascension and Gonzales south of I-10. Another 148 acres of the original project did not go before the commission Wednesday but could, according to its zoning, hold another 444 homes if ever built.
Still, the Conway Plantation and Edenborne mixed-use developments, as well as other new neighborhoods, already are planned in the area. But they are all sprouting near two-lane La. 44 south of I-10, where residents complained at previous commission meetings last fall that they can’t get out of their homes during morning and evening rush hour due to continuous traffic.
Melancon must already build a roundabout on La. 22 for the project’s entrance. The impact fees would go toward other off-site improvements.
Bob Turner, parish engineer, and new Commissioner Aaron Chaisson Jr. aired concerns about syncing the phases of construction with highway capacity.
“My concern is that, somehow, this phasing of development be geared to the ability of the road system to handle it,” Turner said. “If we have no limit and they go ahead and build out 780 lots, you’re going to throw that whole area into gridlock because the roads can’t handle it, and so there needs to be some sort of check and balance on the ability of the road to carry the development as it occurs.”
Turner said several state highway plans are looking at roundabouts and other improvement to La. 44.
“Until it’s funded, all you got is desire,” Turner said.
Even at what Melancon would pay under the proposed impact fee ordinance, though, the fees would cover about 40 percent of a $4 million roundabout that his traffic study suggests could help the nearby La. 22/La. 44 intersection.
That study looked not only at Riverton’s effect on the area but also the impact of several other projects. Turner cautioned he was not arguing Melancon should bear the full cost of all the highway improvements the study identified, which totaled up to $100 million.
Chaisson and other commissioners discussed trying to halt the project at certain phases until the roads were improved, but O’Neil Parenton Jr., commission attorney, said the board won’t be able to do that if the impact fee ordinance is adopted.
Though a few residents sought a delay until more details could be nailed down, the commission backed the project with conditions for drainage, impact fees and that Melancon do a new traffic study after the first 168 homes are built.
In premeeting written comments on the project, parish planners had pushed for Melancon to convert the future Riverton Parkway from a neighborhood road into a boulevard because it could eventually handle 6,000 vehicle trips per day. But the commissioners did not raise the issue Wednesday.
Beiriger also said the developers are in early talks with the School Board about a future school site. That change could greatly alter the subdivision’s traffic impact but would also require the whole project be sent back to the commission.
In the vote, Commissioners Julio Dumas, Bishop, Tony Christy and Douglas Foster voted yes. Commissioners Chaisson and Edward Dudley voted no.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.