GONZALES — After more than a year of criticism for being too lenient in oversight of new development, the Ascension Parish Planning Commission, with five new members, has discussed getting tougher.
But the commission this week ended up approving several subdivisions with required work unfinished, after the developers promised to complete the work.
At issue is something called a contingency, a common and apparently legal practice in Ascension for major subdivision projects.
The commission often grants these contingencies when a developer is trying to move through the commission’s approval steps but has studies, work or other questions from parish staff unresolved by the evening of the commission’s monthly meeting.
Under a contingency, a developer must complete unresolved steps before being allowed to move forward with the project but avoids having to return a month later to another commission meeting. But by granting a contingency, the commission generally leaves the final check to parish staff, outside the public meeting room.
The practice has drawn fire from critics who have leveled a broader critique that the body is unwilling to say no to developments that rely on inadequate infrastructure.
The criticism of contingencies has most often come up at an early stage of review when drainage and traffic studies need approval, but the practice again rose to the forefront this week when commission Chairman Matt Pryor broached the topic over the final plat for the 35-home New River Oaks subdivision off La. 73.
“W hat’s to stop the developer from just throwing together something and throwing it up to this commission and saying, ‘Oh, well, just approve it contingent,’ and it’s really not a picture of what should or should not, or what will eventually be done,” Pryor said.
When he raised this question, the commission already had approved, with contingencies, the preliminary plat for 41-home Galvez Trails off La. 44 and the final plat for 100-home Dutchtown Meadows off Cornerview Road, and had just gotten to a list of 30 unfinished items for New River Oaks. Before they delved into the list, commissioners heard complaints against the Dutchtown Meadows developer from neighbor Ernest Stephens, 71, about problems not on the punch list: trash being left on Stephens’ property, water pumped from the subdivision’s sewer plant on his land and his torn down barbed-wire fence.
James Hendrick, of Primus Development, which is building Dutchtown Meadows, told the commissioners he already had met with Stephens and promised to address his concerns, and claimed the trash, which was cleaned up, had been dumped without his permission by someone else.
But this back and forth led Pryor to ask the commission’s new engineering consultant from CSRS Inc. whether the unfinished items on the “punch list” for New River Oaks subdivision were major in nature or just minor, technical details.
A punch list is a last check of items that must be completed before approval of a subdivision’s final plat, which sets the stage for home construction.
Pryor told the parish’s consulting engineer, Shaun Sherrow, that he thinks of a punch list as minor items, like when one builds a new house, making sure all the light switches are in the right place.
“Is there a difference, and are we setting a bad precedent here? ” Pryor asked.
Commissioner Douglas Foster, who, like Pryor, is one of four lawyers now on the commission, shared Pryor’s concern.
“I think it sets up a precedent that we’re telegraphing to the rest of the world that we allow these things to be cobbled together and, based on these contingencies, will go ahead and approve these things,” Foster said.
But newly seated Commissioner Julio Dumas, who is starting his second stint on the body, countered that, as a planner by profession, he has seen communities that don’t even bring final plat approval before their planning commissions and simply leave that review to staff.
Sherrow told the commissioners that while there’s a “big gray area” over what is a major or minor item, typically most of the items on a punch list are minor matters that crews can handle in two weeks of good weather. He said the parish typically catches major items, such as a missing drainage pipe or sewer manholes, because inspectors are on-site and his company checks construction tests.
On a 6-0 vote Wednesday, the commission approved New River Oaks with contingencies that included completion of the punch list and resolution of Stephens’ concerns.
The commission also backed the final plat for a second, 40-home phase of River Landing off La. 42 with the contingency that the developer finish his punch list.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter @NewsieDave.