GONZALES — After months of agitation from members of the Ascension Parish Council over the passing of traffic impact fees on new development earlier this year, the new administration of Parish President Kenny Matassa quietly began collecting a new impact fee two months ago.
The parish began in February charging sewer impact fees of $2,500 for each lot in new subdivisions, parish officials confirmed.
While traffic impact fees were adopted April 7 by the Parish Council after a series of public meetings, the sewer impact fees started being charged with no public debate and little notice to the Parish Council.
The sewer impact fees were adopted more than four and a half years ago by a different Parish Council, but those fees were never charged on new projects until February.
Parish Council members have said they don’t know why the fees weren’t collected for the last four years and they don’t know what led the administration to begin collecting them now.
“This administration is very quiet about what it does. I tend to find out about things after the fact,” said Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee, a leading proponent of traffic and other kinds of impact fees.
As with some other council members, Satterlee said he found out about the sewer impact fees March 9 when administration planners told the Planning Commission the fees were being applied to new subdivisions but gave little explanation about how that decision was reached.
Developer Ross Berthelot said he didn’t find out about the fees for The Grove at Ascension, his 90-home subdivision in Galvez, until it was up for final approval at a March Planning Commission meeting.
After 18 months of road and infrastructure construction and meetings with parish officials, he says the sewer fees never came up until February, which he had to pay in order to start building the houses.
“At the end of the day, I contend they basically put this on the plat at the last minute for me and two other subdivisions, which is a method of extortion,” Berthelot said.
Called “development fees” in the sewer ordinance adopted in August 2011, the sewer impact fees were part of a broad ordinance rewrite that included new user and hookup fees and other costs for future parish sewer service.
The administration of then-Parish President Tommy Martinez, who was in his third of four terms, was pushing the ordinance. It was needed to clear the way for an $18 million low-interest loan through the state Department of Environmental Quality.
The parish was required to have a sewer fee schedule before such a loan would be approved. The loan was needed for a regional sewer project under consideration at the time, but in the end was never built.
Parish Attorney O’Neil Parenton Jr. said that the sewer impact fees began being implemented because of the recent influx of new housing, after a lull and the potential parish sewer customers all those new homes will bring.
For many years, in the absence of public sewer systems in unincorporated Ascension, developers have built their own systems and donated them to private companies, thus giving the private companies new customers.
The parish wants to build its own system and has been working to build a customer base to pay for the system.
In a bid to stop the loss of future parish sewer customers, the parish was supposed to have developers donate their sewer systems to the parish instead of private companies.
As part of a mechanism to encourage donations to the parish, the 2011 sewer ordinance allowed developers to get credits on their sewer impact fees for some of their subdivision sewer costs. If developers didn’t donate, the ordinance stipulates they have to keep the systems themselves.
Matassa administration officials pinned the blame on the lack of past fee enforcement on former Planning Director Ricky Compton, whom Matassa terminated, reinstated and allowed to resign March 30.
Parish government spokesman Lester Kenyon said Interim Planning Director Lance Brock, a longtime parish zoning official, “suggested any questions regarding why sewer impact fees weren’t collected before the Matassa administration be directed to Ricky Compton, who would’ve made such decisions.”
Kenyon refused to make Brock available for an interview.
Parenton said he did not have information about past implementation, which would have occurred before he handled those matters.
Compton countered that the responsibility lay with the parish Utilities Department that oversees sewerage, the parish attorneys, and top administration officials who enforced the sewer ordinance at the time.
“Were fees discussed? I can’t speak to that, as it was not the Planning Department’s responsibility,” Compton wrote in an email.
But he listed a series of subdivisions that were able to hook into existing, privately run sewer systems that predated the sewer ordinance so the developer avoided the fees, among them East Creek Shadows, Villas at Sagefield and Renaissance.
Martinez, the former parish president, said the administration decided to allow these connections while the parish was unable to provide sewer service.
“In some instances, I mean, if he (the developer) was going to build it and give it to you, we still had to have a way to treat it (the sewage),” Martinez said.
At least in some cases, Martinez said, developers had to agree to turn over their customers once parish sewer does arrive.
The parish, which now has a $60 million loan from DEQ, is considering a newer $500 million sewer plan for East Ascension that private companies would build.
Compton added that he was the person who prompted the Matassa administration to clarify the status of the sewer impact fees after the parish Engineering Department official Rickey DeArmond asked in February when the sewer impact fees would be collected.
“The director (Compton) requested clarification from the Administration and legal counsel, and all powers greater confirmed that all new subdivisions were responsible to pay the fee,” Compton wrote.
For Berthelot, the developer, sewer fee credits allowed him to save his $1,250 share of the $2,500-per-lot impact fee and about $250 for his builders. The fees are actually split between developers and home builders. But he said he had to renegotiate with his builders to help with the added cost.
“At the end of the day, (the credit) covered my fees, but it stuck my builder on line with another $1,000 per lot fee,” he said.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.