GONZALES — The past seven days in Ascension Parish have seen a lot of movement on one of the top issues in last fall’s elections: handling population growth and new housing development.
On Feb. 29, a unanimous five-member Parish Council committee recommended a six-month moratorium on new major subdivision proposals, leaving the full council in need of one more vote to make the development stoppage stick when it comes up probably in April.
On March 2, after a series of departures from the parish Planning Commission, which had come under fire from some for not saying no to new projects over road and drainage worries, the council appointed five new members and reappointed sixth member to the seven-person body.
On Friday, Parish President Kenny Matassa terminated longtime Planning Director Ricky Compton while Matassa and some council members were at a Police Jury Association meeting in Shreveport. The move surprised and upset several council members in what they saw as the untimely loss of a staffer who could have helped steer toward completion of a suite of changes governing how Ascension grows.
But Compton, who joined parish government in April 2008, is blunt and has been a polarizing figure on a variety of development issues, at times in the past with those seeking to slow growth and, more recently, with developers and builders.
Then, as the weeklong period came full circle, the Council Finance Committee on Monday received a long-developing plan from a panel of residents, developers and others that would impose transportation impact fees on new developments in the parish.
Moratorium, new commission, impact fees — all have been major issues bubbling for months, if not years.
The council gave Matassa’s administration 30 days to review the road impact fee plan, sans Compton, and bring it back to the council for its review and possible adoption.
Members also aired their interest Monday night on the administration looking at impact fees for other needs, including recreation and firefighters.
The road impact fee plan had sat with the subcommittee headed by former Planning Commissioner Gasper Chifici for two years and was stalled for a time. In a sign the council did not want any more delays, several members pushed back on Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee’s idea to review a broad variety of other impact fees, such as law enforcement and the jail, and then deal with them together.
Several others members said they did not want that process to delay tackling road impact fees, which some saw as their constituents’ top concern.
“So I just ask that we don’t get bogged down in all these others. I agree with you we should look at them,” Councilman Bill Dawson told Satterlee. “But I hope we don’t get bogged down with them and miss the opportunity to bring this before the council post haste.”
Backers of impact fees, which charge a one-time fee on new development to account for the infrastructure impact of new construction, have always had an eye on the two-thirds council majority needed to pass impact fees on the 11-member council.
There is sense from some on the council that now, with a three new members, a super-majority of eight votes may support road impact fees nearly 10 years after a similar proposal failed by one vote. At the same time, several council members saw the departure of Compton as a setback toward this drive.
Councilwoman Teri Casso, who as Finance Committee chairwoman created the impact fee panel, called the move disappointing and unexpected after Matassa had seemed to be working with the council on other personnel decisions.
“Then, all of sudden, out of the blue on a Friday morning, when we were all really supposed to be out of town, one of the key members of our administration was terminated without even an offer of an explanation from this parish president,” Casso said in an interview.
Compton said Monday he was informed Friday morning by the Human Resources Department that Matassa would not being putting him up for council ratification and was terminated. Compton declined further comment.
Planning director is among a few department head positions in the parish government that need council backing.
Casso said she did not know why Compton was terminated but said he was disliked by some developers because he was unwilling to compromise and erred on the side of the parish in interpretation of the code.
On Feb. 24, Compton incurred the frustration of Quality Engineering and Surveying co-owner Jared “Burger” Beiriger, according to emails between Compton and Beiriger.
Compton, who as planning director interprets the code, claimed work was not finished in three housing projects and so they were not ready for an approval allowing home construction to start.
“I think you should start doing your job by enforcing the ordinances of Ascension Parish and not the policies that you deem fit to arbitrarily add to the code,” Beiriger responded, copying Matassa and other officials.
Matassa, like his one of his election opponents in former Councilman Chris Loar, counted, in part, on builders, developers and engineers for campaign funding. Beiriger’s Quality Engineering gave $5,000 to Matassa and a separate company owned by Beiriger’s partner, Deric Murphy, gave another $5,000.
Quality Engineering also gives to a variety of other officials in the region and gave to Loar in 2013.
But Matassa also ran on cutting red tape and easing the path for good projects. Matassa declined to comment on Compton’s termination but the parish president rejected any notion he was doing a developer’s bidding.
Matassa added he appointed Lance Brock, the longtime zoning official, as Compton’s interim replacement and believes the planning staff can handle impact fees and other proposals.
Beiriger, a former one-term parish councilman, disputed that his disagreement with Compton last month or his financial support of Matassa played a role in Compton’s firing. Beiriger said he was out of town when it happened and didn’t know about it until well later. He said he wished he “had the power everyone accuses me of.”
“I mean I wouldn’t have to do anything. I could just walk around and get every thing done,” Beiriger said.