GONZALES — The last time they’d met, then-President Bill Clinton was just starting his second term, still a year removed from the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and the Comet Hale-Bopp was making a close swing past Earth.
But a running dispute over a proposed family partition in St. Amant that already sparked a major rewrite last year of Ascension Parish rules brought the parish Planning Commission Appeals Board together for the first time since 1997.
Family partitions allow landowners to claim certain hardships and avoid some parish development and infrastructure requirements when they give land to immediate family.
All three board members, Sam Speligene, Fritz Englade and Brian Aguillard, were appointed by current Parish President Tommy Martinez, who is finishing his fourth, nonconsecutive term of office.
But the members had never had a meeting together and had to name a chairman before the business at hand could be decided the night of Jan. 15.
Aguillard, who has been on the board four years, was named chairman and ended up casting the tie-breaking vote. The 2-1 decision denied the appeal of a series of commission votes blocking the family partition being sought by Louis and Cynthia Stafford. The decision upholds those earlier commission votes.
“I feel that in the family partition rules as they existed, there is a hardship rule and standards and, personally, I don’t think that hardship was shown in this case,” Aguillard said.
Since the summer, the Staffords have been seeking to create two half-acre lots for their children from an 80-acre pasture along La. 936 about a half-mile east of La. 22.
The Staffords needed the partition, as opposed to a standard land division, because George Schexnayder Road, the pasture’s access to La. 936, is 30 feet wide. That’s not enough to be a public road. The partition would have allowed the new lots access off the private G. Schexnayder Road.
The case prompted a rewrite of family partition rules last year that would now block what the Staffords are seeking, but this partition request remains under the old rules.
Critics, who charged in Planning Commission meetings last year that the Staffords were trying to create a mobile home park by other means, said the Staffords wanted to fix a self-created hardship still barred even by the old rules.
The Staffords had previously created a series of lots along La. 936 and were trying to now use private G. Schexnayder to create more lots deeper into the pasture and farther off La. 936.
“In family partitions, you cannot create your own hardship, and when they divided their property’s six acres across their frontage in 2010, that’s what they did,” said Laurie Hoffman, who lives near the site.
Cynthia Stafford, a prominent real estate agent in the Baton Rouge area, said though family partitions have been abused in the past, she and her husband followed the parish rules.
Stafford, who disputed she was trying to build a mobile home park, said parish planning staff told her, in an initial commission meeting last year, that they would recommend approval after survey corrections were made to her request.
At the next meeting, though, neighbors complained and the commission denied her request, she said. Stafford said she and her husband are being singled out, noting the commission approved similar partitions with no discussion and backing from parish staff.
“I think legally it was just not fair, and I think that I could win in court if I went and presented this, but I don’t want to do that. I just want to do what’s fair and what is right,” Stafford said.
Appeal Board member Englade said he is concerned no black-and-white definition of what a “hardship” is exists in the code, pointing to a 2002 opinion from then parish advisor and now state District Judge Jessie LeBlanc. That opinion also says hardships cannot be self-created, though.
Ascension Parish Planning Director Ricky Compton responded that while parish staff review how a request applies to the code, it is the commission’s job to consider not only that code review but also what any hardship may be.
“If we (the staff) were doing that, then the commission would simply be a rubber stamp,” Compton said. “They would just take what we said and stamp every one and go.”
But Englade continued to question why the Staffords were denied if they were following the parish rules, and moved to accept the Stafford’s appeal. He failed to get a second.
Speligene, who said he felt the partition was not done in the spirit of the ordinance, then moved to deny the appeal and Aguillard seconded.
The Staffords said after the Jan. 15 meeting that they plan to sue and want to name planning commissioners individually.
Sue Heath, a principal critic of the partition, said she was happy to see the appeal decision.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.