GONZALES — How to grapple with population growth in Ascension Parish has emerged as a major theme in the Saturday elections for parish president and six contested seats on the 11-member Parish Council.
After the current parish leaders failed to win voter backing for three new taxes for roads, firefighters and recreation between 2012 and 2014, candidates have promised not to raise taxes while improving congested roads or building a new regional sewage treatment system many parish leaders are eyeing.
Impact fees on new development, a building moratorium, rededication of existing property taxes and other ideas to squeeze infrastructure money out of existing parish resources are all being floated to keep up with a tide of new residents projected to reach 200,000 by 2030.
Parish officials said earlier this month that 38 residential subdivisions, with 3,611 lots, are under review by the parish or are having roads and other infrastructure installed.
Two more subdivisions, Lakeside Terrace and Ironwood Estates, which will bring in another 297 lots along busy La. 42 in Prairieville and Galvez, entered that same development pipeline after key early backing last week from the parish Planning Commission.
Meanwhile, the Parish Council also cleared the way Thursday to turn another 375 acres of west Ascension farmland along the Mississippi River in Lemannville into industrial and some mixed uses, adding to the nearly 17,000 acres recently earmarked in Modeste for the same uses.
The rezoned property downstream of Donaldsonville is within sight of the Sunshine Bridge and abuts the 985-acre Pointe Sunshine, one of Ascension’s mega sites already being marketed for future industry.
Neighborhoods driven by top-ranked public schools and new jobs sprout in east Ascension, while large west bank tracts of farmland with river access are being primed for new industry amid low natural gas prices.
Donna Wolff, 2015 president of the Greater Baton Rouge Association of Realtors, said Ascension’s inventory of new homes had been down after the financial and real estate crisis of several years ago.
Even as the economy improved, she said, Ascension tightened its development rules that, combined with high land prices, made it more expensive to build.
“I think it took a little while, too, for people to want jump back into it,” Wolff said.
She doesn’t see the construction boom abating any time soon.
Parish Planning Director Ricky Compton has predicted the pace of new projects could continue as it is now for another 18 to 24 months. He has asked the Planning Commission to consider a rules change that would double the amount of time the parish engineering staff has to review new developments to 70 days.
At Planning Commission meetings in recent months, neighbors of proposed subdivisions have aired familiar frustrations about the pace of new development and what some see as a lack of consideration over infrastructure impacts from all the new homes.
Preston Bennett, 41, of Prairieville, will live next to the future Ironwood Estates. He urged the commissioners to defer a vote to allow the parish staff to review revised traffic and drainage studies, but the commissioners approved the project contingent on those studies and other requirements.
Bennett said the commission isn’t using its discretion on new projects and instead is trying too much to ensure the developments follow just the letter of the law.
“That’s not their purpose. Their purpose is to be a voice of the people of Ascension when it comes to planning and development, and it seems like the public hearing is treated like an afterthought when they are making decisions,” he said.
The Planning Commission has not been a major focus of campaign rhetoric, but two of the five candidates running in the fast-growing District 7 in Prairieville and Oak Grove have called for a building moratorium — a concept floated in the past in Ascension without success — until the parish can get a grip on infrastructure.
Lawyer Aaron Lawler said he would seek up to a two-year moratorium, noting newly built schools in Prairieville are already out of space.
“If we don’t allow the roads and schools to catch up to growth, we’re going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” said Lawler, whose opponent in the primary, former Councilman Doug Hillensbeck, also has called for a moratorium to tighten development rules.
Planning Commission attorney Cody Martin informed members recently that he would not recommend one longer than six months, but Lawler said he doesn’t think that is enough time to do major infrastructure projects, such as building roads.
Clint Cointment, a Gonzales surveyor and businessman running for parish president, has taken the harshest line at the current operations of parish government. He has taken aim at government inefficiency and at what he says are large surpluses in parish government funds, including $25 million in the general fund. The Republican said he wants to use that money and additional funds freed up by more efficient government to improve drainage and roads.
His two primary opponents in the five-man race are tied to parish government: longtime parish administrator and Gonzales City Councilman Kenny Matassa and District 7 Parish Councilman Chris Loar, both Republicans.
Both Cointment and Matassa have expressed interest in impact fees and a recognition that they likely would come up in their term of office if elected. But Cointment said he wants to have a full discussion of impact fees first to air out the potential costs to all sides. Matassa said he prefers to deal with each new development individually to get concessions for roads and infrastructure but also believes impact fees are coming.
Parish president candidates Ricky Diggs and Clarence Henry Jr., both Democrats, have expressed varying interest in impact fees for roads. While Diggs said he believes new development should pay for its impact on infrastructure, Henry said he would want to study the issue first.
Meanwhile, Loar is an enthusiastic advocate for impact fees, a concept likely to draw opposition from builders and others tied to Ascension’s growth economy.
He said traffic is the biggest issue he hears about on the campaign trail and believes the new council could have the eight votes necessary to pass impact fees, which failed to garner enough council votes in 2006.
Loar said that with the high number of subdivisions now in the parish government review pipeline, impact fees will be the first issue he will tackle as parish president.
“We need to get that done before those are finalized,” Loar said.
Editor's Note: This story was changed on Oct. 21, 2015, to correct the name of Ascension Parish Planning Commission attorney Cody Martin.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.