The effort to incorporate the Livingston Parish community of Satsuma has drawn a legal challenge that could keep the issue from going to voters next month.
A businessman and some residents filed a lawsuit Wednesday morning seeking a restraining order to keep the issue off the March 28 ballot, claiming the incorporation organizers fraudulently coerced people to sign the petition and did not follow state law.
Jeffrey Henderson, on behalf of J3 Investments LLC, Jeffrey and Tracy Holtgren Tamborrino, and Kerri McDonald also claim in their lawsuit that the proposed town would include an unreasonably large area of vacant land and the proposed town would not be able to provide the required public services.
They have asked the 21st Judicial District Court to issue restraining orders against petition organizers Edmond Arledge and Harvey L. Arledge, the parish registrar of voters and Gov. Bobby Jindal, prohibiting the incorporation issue from going on the ballot and setting a hearing date.
Attached to the petition are three affidavits from residents of Suma Lake Drive who each say they were told to sign the petition to receive additional information, to get a reduction in rent or to help a cause allegedly backed by Suma Crossing owner-developer Garry Lewis. Lewis opposes the incorporation. The three Suma Lake residents said in their affidavits that they would not have signed the petition without the misrepresentations made to them.
Other residents were told they could not keep their properties residential, but would be forced to sell their land as commercial property, unless the community incorporated, the lawsuit says.
In addition, the lawsuit alleges that the 6,500-acre proposed incorporation area includes more than 4,500 acres of uninhabited land that is largely unconnected to the area where most community members live.
The lawsuit says the Arledges “intentionally gerrymandered out” of the proposed town limits all residents of precinct 20, an area south of Interstate 12 where much of the vacant land is located. The incorporation petition said there was one registered voter in precinct 20 who lives within the proposed town limits, but the lawsuit claims there are none — meaning, the vacant land there might be incorporated without any precinct 20 voters having an opportunity to vote on the proposal.
Petition organizer Harvey L. Arledge has said the proposed town limits were drawn to include the vacant land south of I-12 where the parish government proposes to locate a general aviation airport so that community residents would have a voice in whether and how that land is developed. Lewis, the developer who owns about 2,000 acres within the proposed town limits, including the land where the airport would be located, has said the incorporation effort is nothing more than a land grab.
Neighboring municipalities would not be able to annex those large uninhabited tracts without “the written assent of each nonresident property owner,” the lawsuit states. Allowing a new town to be created without those landowners’ consent would violate their equal protection rights, Livingston attorney Drake Lewis argues in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also challenges whether the vacant land included in the proposed town limits is actually contiguous to the area north of I-12 where Satsuma residents live. A map of the proposed incorporation area filed with the lawsuit indicates that some of the residential area that would have connected the two segments — north and south of I-12 — was excluded from the proposed town.
The incorporation petition also failed to provide a reasonable plan for providing public services, as required by state law. The petition said public safety needs would be met by the Sheriff’s Office and parish fire districts, and that the parish’s public works department would provide infrastructure and code enforcement. But the lawsuit says the parish cannot provide services to one municipality without doing the same for all others in the parish.
“Satsuma has 10 square miles of area to support with little or no plan for generating revenue; whereas, Denham Springs requires an annual budget in excess of $11 million to support a significantly smaller area of 6.03 square miles,” the lawsuit states. Satsuma organizers “did not consider the land area, tax base, cost of equipment and personnel, relating to the provision of services and (are) not likely capable of doing so.”
The lawsuit also alleges that three different versions of the petition were circulated and that no single petition collected the required 255 signatures — 25 percent of the proposed town’s 1,023 registered voters — to be placed on the ballot.
Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen. Contact her by phone at (225) 336-6981.