GONZALES — Public school officials called Wednesday for buffer property to separate elementary and middle schools in Donaldsonville from a future 17,000-acre industrial complex parish leaders are considering for the west bank of Ascension Parish.
The calls came as the parish Zoning Commission recommended an industrial overlay for the vast swath of agricultural land, but commissioners promised that parish officials will work with the schools to keep schoolchildren from the heaviest industrial activities.
The overlay, which still needs full Parish Council approval, would set the stage for future industrial rezonings on land now mostly zoned in Ascension’s least-dense residential category.
School Board member Robyn Penn Delaney told the commission that Lowery Elementary and Middle schools are near the planned area, with up to 900 children who would have to shelter in place during an industrial incident.
“We’re not talking about adults, so I’m just asking the council, please, to consider, maybe some kind revision or whatever to protect these children at that site,” Delaney said.
She noted the ongoing $2.1 billion expansion of CF Industries is bringing that complex within eight-tenths of a mile from Donaldsonville Primary School. Delaney has called for moving the school.
Chad Lynch, school system director of planning and construction, said the school system relies on environmental studies tied to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards for buffers around schools.
The overlay area stretches from the Smoke Bend area outside Donaldsonville to the Modeste community near Iberville Parish. But what drew the most concern from school officials was the southern edge of the overlay area, which is nearest to Lowery Elementary. That 720 acres, which is owned by the Souvenir Inc., has been rezoned to heavy industry.
From property line to property line, the elementary is 1,094 feet from the site while the school building is 1,802 feet from the Souvenir property line, said J. Michael Eades, president and chief executive officer of the Ascension Economic Development Corp.
Eades has been one of the prime backers of turning the area into a large complex of shared roads, rail, docks and other key infrastructure that would surpass Geismar.
The Souvenir site’s proximity to the school did not come up during the rezoning process, and the commission and council did not implement light industry buffers the parish zoning staff had recommended.
Commissioner Gasper Chifici suggested the buffer could be implemented through the overlay — the Souvenir property is in the overlay — but Parish Planning Director Ricky Compton said the owners could opt out of the overlay.
“It is what it is at this point,” Compton said.
Still, Chifici and other commissioners suggested the concerns voiced by the school officials are part of the long-term planning process the area is going through and there will be a way to deal with those matters.
“What Mike (Eades) said earlier, ‘We have a chance in west Ascension to do it right,’ ” said Commissioner Robert Burgess. “If we’re going to do it right, we’re going to take those things into consideration.”
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