ST. GABRIEL — This rural Iberville Parish city is poised to reap the benefits of Baton Rouge’s urban sprawl, but some worry the pace of change is coming too fast.
At issue is the strain residential and commercial growth is placing on the infrastructure of this city of 6,700 downriver from LSU at the southwestern edge of East Baton Rouge Parish.
Contractors are now clearing trees on La. 30 near the edge of the city limits where developers are preparing to build a $13 million, 100-room hotel, a new $20 million apartment complex and an adjacent, $7 million mini-shopping retail center. And two new upscale subdivisions, which are in the planning stages, are expected to attract more than 1,400 new residents into St. Gabriel within the next five years.
The growth also is changing the racial makeup of the historically black city, a point brought up in a hearing on a lawsuit by white city residents who complained they aren’t being properly represented in city government.
Mayor Lionel Johnson welcomes the new residential and commercial developments coming to the city. He attributes the growth to the city’s close proximity to Baton Rouge, lack of crime and affordable, undeveloped land.
But Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso thinks the city lacks the infrastructure to handle the growth spurt. He’s encouraging the City Council to consider adopting a moratorium that would put the brakes on any more commercial or residential development in St. Gabriel for at least a year.
“St. Gabriel is our shining star of the parish at this time — there’s a lot of potential growth in East Iberville,” Ourso said. “But who’s going to pay for the impact all this could have on the infrastructure?”
He added, “The community is at a critical point in its growth. Planning must come now before further developments are considered for approval.”
However, a majority of the St. Gabriel City Council disagrees and won’t even entertain the thought of hitting the pause button on planned and further developments.
“I don’t want to stop the growth,” said Councilman Melvin Hasten, who acknowledges the city’s lack of big-box stores and commercial eateries is a new focus for city leaders. “It’s not about what he (Ourso) wants; it’s about what the people want.”
St. Gabriel incorporated in 1994 and was designated as a city seven years later when its population exceeded 5,000 people.
But before that, it was a simple agricultural-driven sliver of Iberville Parish on the Mississippi River’s east bank that was divided into the communities of Carville, Sunshine and St. Gabriel. Its most prominent features were sprawling cornfields and gravel roads.
At least, that’s how Hazel Schexnayder remembers it when she moved into the area at age 17 in 1949.
“I just fell in love with this place. It was such a beautiful rural area,” she said. “There was just cornfields everywhere.”
Schexnayder, and the rest of the community, watched the character of the area change in the late 1960s, as the steel skeletons of industrial plants sprouted where corn once grew and the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections made St. Gabriel the setting for two of its prisons, Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in 1979 and the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in 1961.
Those industrial plants — the city has about 13 of them today — helped swell the city’s budget over the last 19 years since incorporation from $1.2 million in 1996 to $8.8 million in 2014, according to annually audit reports.
“We’ve gotten more paved roads, sidewalks and public utilities because of it,” said Audrey Redditt, a lifelong St. Gabriel resident. “I just wish we could get a grocery store; some nice retail. That way, we wouldn’t have to drive to Baton Rouge or Gonzales.”
Mayor Johnson said that won’t happen unless the city’s population grows, which is why the two new proposed subdivisions are important.
The mayor said the two projects would be nearly identical to ones the city welcomed in 2010 — University Club South and Spanish Lakes, both right off La. 30.
The first of the two proposals, to be called Lafitte Pointe, would feature 200 homes located off Bayou Paul Lane.
The second, Meadow Oaks, is set for construction near the St. Gabriel Community Center. That development would include about 400 homes, the mayor said.
Homes in both proposed subdivisions will have selling prices of between $185,000 to $250,000.
Johnson said the projects are expected to reach the city’s Planning Committee for approval this spring.
“There’s a 50/50 chance these will happen,” Johnson said. “I’ve said for years we were the best-kept secret in the state. But I’m aware we can’t make an off-the-cuff decision with all of this. We know we want rooftops here ... but we do have other things that need to be considered.”
Although St. Gabriel has been a self-governing city for nearly two decades, it’s still heavily reliant on the parish for many essential public services.
Ourso said the parish oversees the city’s water and gas service as well as garbage pickup, animal control and mosquito abatement, which in his opinion gives him and the city’s two representatives on the Parish Council a legitimate voice in the city’s growth cycle.
Ourso wants the city to halt approvals for large residential developments and commercial endeavors larger than 5,000 square feet. He said that’s needed to avoid the kind of growing pains Ascension Parish leaders confronted when the unincorporated community Prairieville experienced a similar growth spurt several years ago.
The moratorium would allow the parish time to commission a study that would give St. Gabriel something it doesn’t have right now — precise planning that ensures infrastructure can keep up with the growth, Ourso said.
“Decisions made today will have long-term impacts for many years in the future,” he explained.
At the forefront of parish leaders’ minds is drainage and possible backwater flooding that could occur in St. Gabriel’s lower areas within the Spanish Lake/Alligator Bayou drainage basin.
The parish recently allocated $2 million in federal funds to improve the flood gates at Alligator Bayou, but Ourso said that project is on hold as the parish undertakes a $200,000 environmental assessment study recommended by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The study will determine the impact proposed gate improvements will have on the St. Gabriel area, as well as areas in East Baton Rouge and Ascension parishes.
“Now, as agricultural areas are being proposed for residential and commercial development, public leaders cannot be short-sighted in studying the impacts of these developments and how they relate to flooding issues in the parish,” Ourso said. “It is one thing for an agricultural field to flood, but it is a completely different matter for 40 to 50 residential homes to flood.”
The parish also needs to increase the city’s water supply and upgrade undersized water mains before any more new developments pop up, Ourso said.
He said a 25-year contract with the Baton Rouge Water Co., set to expire in March, caps the amount of water the parish can purchase every month for St. Gabriel at approximately 65 million gallons.
Ourso said the city regularly uses 97 percent of its monthly allotment.
“The water supply volume and sizes of mains originally developed and built were under the premise that this area was a low residential density agricultural area,” he said. “This new growth and development is placing pressure on the ability of the local water systems to meet volume demands, as well as pressure demands.”
The daily afternoon traffic congestions along La. 30 also have to be considered, and the increased fire and police protection an influx of residents would drive the need for are additional concerns for the parish.
And those are improvements Ourso said taxpayers usually turn to government to take care of.
“Whatever we have to do, we’ll do it,” St. Gabriel Councilwoman Deborah Alexander said.
Councilman Hasten added, “They should have thought about addressing all of that when they were hardly doing anything for us. We’re gonna get the growth, and he can do the study later.”
The proposed subdivisions could potentially shift St. Gabriel’s racial makeup and could cause black people to lose their designation as the city’s majority.
Since its incorporation, black residents always have outnumbered white residents.
But the black majority’s dominance in the city has gradually shrunk as more white upper- and middle-class families moved into the area. According to the latest projections from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, 60 percent, or 4,055 people, of the city’s total population of 6,721 are black.
White people make up 33.9 percent — 2,280 residents — of the city’s population. The Census Bureau counts inmates at the two correctional facilities in the city into its total population.
As of Jan. 26, the state’s Department of Correction reported housing 1,975 inmates at Elyan Hunt Correctional Center and another 1,098 at Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women.
The city’s racial makeup became a hot-button issue recently when two white residents filed suit against the city, asserting that St. Gabriel’s five-member, all-black City Council is violating a portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the U.S. Constitution by refusing to adopt a redistricting plan featuring single-member districts that would give white voters better representation in city government.
The lawsuit also says the town’s at-large voting system has created an atmosphere in which white people are discouraged from running for public office because the town’s majority-black electorate historically uses bloc voting to ensure the town keeps a predominately black legislative body that’s uninterested in addressing the needs of white residents.
Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson could possibly rule on the case this week.
Using the estimated values of the homes in the two new proposed subdivisions, city officials are guessing a majority of the more than 1,400 new residents they will attract will be white.
If that’s true, it will significantly close the racial gap between the city’s white and black residents, which could potentially alter the racial makeup of the City Council as well.
“For some reason, this has become about race, and it’s not a race issue,” Mayor Johnson said. “Whether these subdivisions get approved will not be contingent upon race. The real issue is whether we have the adequate water and drainage.”
As proposed new developments navigate their way through the city’s due process toward approval, Johnson said his focus is on ensuring St. Gabriel can sustain the new growth.
He also may have to play mediator between the parish and the City Council’s polarizing views on how that should be handled.
“I think once the council and I sit down and say which way we want to grow as a city and present that to the parish, the parish will be willing to support us.”
Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.