DONALDSONVILLE — The Ascension Parish Council backed a resolution Thursday asking its Zoning Commission to consider an exemption that would clear the way for a development at Houmas House plantation to proceed.
The River Road plantation project would include a hotel, bed-and-breakfast and restaurant, plans show. The project would also be connected with a proposed steamboat museum on the Mississippi River batture.
The museum was awarded a $5.2 million federal grant earlier this year.
The council’s unanimous vote came after considerable debate about what was behind the resolution and what would be the quickest way to move the Houmas House project forward.
The choices would be to approve the proposed exemption or scrap the entire ordinance in question.
In explaining the resolution to the council Thursday, Parish President Tommy Martinez did not mention Houmas House but referenced another historic home, Bocage Plantation, that was subject to the same zoning conflict as Houmas House.
Martinez said the parish development code is broken and needs to be fixed. He said the parish administration, planning staff and the Planning Commission missed that Bocage was in the same situation as Houmas House when the commission considered a project there recently.
“Everybody kind of dropped ball on it, and we need to fix that,” he said.
But Councilman George Valentine countered that the resolution was about Houmas House, referencing recent media coverage of allegations Houmas House owner Kevin Kelly made against two planning commissioners.
“Everybody is not stupid out here,” Valentine said.
Martinez responded later that the parish was not trying to expedite Kelly’s project.
“From my perspective, we’re not looking at Houmas House. We’re not trying to expedite what happens at Houmas House. We have a flaw in our law,” Martinez said.
Valentine pushed to allow the Zoning Commission, which meets Wednesday, to hold an already set hearing to recommend abolishing the overlay as a quicker means procedurally of resolving the conflict.
Valentine is also an ardent opponent of PUDs and the PUD overlay.
Parish Planning Director Ricky Compton explained that he is a “big fan of multiple angles” and added that officials do not know what recommendation may come from the commission.
At one point, Compton acknowledged that abolition of the PUD overlay would be quicker procedurally but later said on second thought that the exemption would be.
Valentine ultimately moved to table the exemption resolution. The motion failed 2-7. Only Councilman Todd Lambert supported the motion.
Councilman Randy Clouatre did not vote as acting chairman. Councilman Pat Bell was absent.
The subsequent vote to move the resolution was followed by a testy exchange in which Councilman Dempsey Lambert cut off Valentine.
Valentine started reading a June 30 email from Compton regarding steps to bring the exemption to the council “to facilitate timely approval of the Houmas House Project.”
“I’ve heard enough now,” Lambert broke in at one point.
Councilman Clouatre counseled Valentine that he had made his point. Valentine relented.
The exemption the council sent to the Zoning Commission would address a conflict in parish ordinances that were at the center of blackmail allegations made earlier this month by Houmas House’s owner, Kevin Kelly, against two planning commissioners.
The men, Daniel Satterlee and Milton Clouatre Jr., have disputed Kelly’s accusation. District Attorney Ricky Babin has found no crime in Kelly’s allegations and closed the matter.
The issue also delves again into the hot-button issue of planned unit developments, a form of holistic development controversial in Ascension.
At issue is that Houmas House is both in a historic district and PUD overlay. The PUD overlay calls for PUDs on projects larger than three acres. Kelly’s site is 38 acres; Kelly has said he does not want a PUD.
The exemption being proposed would exclude historic sites from the PUD overlay requirements. Projects in the historic overlay need Planning Commission backing. The Planning and Zoning commissions share the same members.