DONALDSONVILLE — Since the 1930s, Skip Noel’s family has owned farmland in Modeste, a rural corner of Ascension Parish’s west bank now on the precipice of major change.
Noel’s grandfather and great-grandfather first bought the land for farming, and ownership has since passed through three generations while the 1,000 acres have stayed in agriculture.
But the Noels are now looking to part with this piece of family history and, in the process, play a part in one day turning the west bank area of green pastures and furrowed fields into a new industrial hub.
Noel, 60, who lives across the Mississippi River in Gonzales, and his brother were among those on hand late last week at the Ascension Parish Courthouse in Donaldsonville when the Parish Council approved a land use plan that sets the stage for turning about 17,000 acres of land — including the Noels’ 1,000 acres — primarily farmed for sugar cane in the communities of Modeste and McCall into an industrial complex to rival Ascension’s existing industrial heart in Geismar.
Noel said their land is leased to farmers since no one in the family farms, and he didn’t see that changing with the next generation, all of which has helped family members consider that it might be time to sell.
“I think industry is just the way things are going. It’s kind of like the last frontier. It’s some of the last large land tracts that are available for industry to develop on the river,” Noel said recently.
Indicative of the significance many parish leaders see represented by the future industrial zone, the superlatives flowed Thursday night as the council unanimously cast votes to implement a plan in development for two years.
“I think this is probably the most important ordinance in the history of Ascension Parish as far as guaranteeing economic growth that we’re enjoying now over the next 50 years,” said four-term Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez, who leaves office in early January.
The newly approved map and the ordinance applying the land use plan ease the path for changing nearly 11,300 of the 17,000 acres from Ascension’s most restrictive residential zoning to its heaviest industrial zoning.
Another 720 acres of the 17,000 has already been rezoned for heavy industry, while most of the remaining 5,000 acres is earmarked for lighter industry.
Mike Eades, CEO of the Ascension Economic Development Corp., said the parish is trying to develop a master plan for the area so it has shared infrastructure and the parish can maximize the number of jobs per acre. While early public discussions about the area last fall focused more on the type of chemical industry seen elsewhere in Ascension, parish officials more recently speculated the area could end up with a mix of businesses, including manufacturing and warehousing.
With the council votes, Eades said it could soon be time to start marketing the area — the Noels’ land is already being shown on some economic development websites — but he and parish officials must first ensure the area has rail access and the 10 miles of riverfront has suitable docking locations for the enterprise to work.
Parish consultant Taylor Gravois, CSRS Inc. project engineer, reported to the council last month that the parish has received positive feedback from Union Pacific Railroad, which has a line near the site.
He said the area appears to have two sites that can accommodate docking for deep draft ships with minimal dredging needed.
Capt. Steve Hathorn, president of the New Orleans-Baton Rouge Steamship Pilots Association, said it can be tough to find suitable sites for docking along the river but his group has met with Martinez and other parish officials.
“We pointed to a couple of spots we think would work for it,” Hathorn said.
But he added those determinations were preliminary and require surveying and other work.
Councilman Oliver Joseph, who represents the area and played a key role in selling the plan, said parish officials will meet later this month to discuss docking sites with the Maritime Navigation Safety Association, a group focused on maritime safety along waterways between Baton Rouge and the Gulf of Mexico.
While major industry started in earnest on the east bank of Ascension in the 1950s and subdivisions have sprouted there for several decades, Modeste has remained somewhat a place apart, even if Ascension’s existing industry in Geismar is just across the river.
The sole smokestack of the Evan Hall Sugar Mill rises over agricultural fields in McCall and stands at the La. 1 turnoff for River Road and Modeste as testament to the area’s roots.
Unresolved concerns remain among city officials in Donaldsonville worried about traffic and school officials worried about industry located so near schools.
The plan calls for buffers of lighter industry around existing homes along River Road and dead-end roads off River Road. The residential areas could also be rezoned to a light commercial zone that would help residents sell, parish officials have said.
Joseph said state highway officials have studied the feasibility for a four-lane expressway near the area, and he suggested training would be a way residents could win some future jobs.
Despite such assurances, feelings remain mixed with some residents who say they want buyouts while others say they welcome the prospect of badly needed jobs and recognize that change happens even in Modeste.
“So you’ve got to go along with the change,” Edmond Solomon, 67, of Modeste, said last week.