GONZALES — A divided Ascension Parish appeals panel on Monday overturned the parish Planning Commission’s denial of the 86-home Brookstone subdivision in February, as the panel chairman found parish staffers’ recommendation for approval too convincing to look past.
The subdivision’s rare denial earlier this year happened as the Planning Commission was headed for a major membership shake-up, and the commission had come under regular criticism for failing to deny projects some said would rely on over-stressed infrastructure.
The commission denied Brookstone 3-1 as residents raised concerns primarily focused on chronic flooding that had seemed to arise after a wave of neighborhood development started a few years ago in the Parker Road area of Prairieville.
But on Monday, the Planning Commission Appeals Board reversed the commission 2-1. Board Chairman Fritz Englade had to second the motion to overturn from member Jimmy Russo because the only other member on the panel was opposed and then cast the key second vote to overturn.
“It’s just I really empathize with the people and the comments that I’ve received. It’s just that from my perspective, it’s hard for me to ignore the recommendation” of the parish staff, Englade said.
A motion from board member Ken Firmin to uphold the commission did not get a second, but a vote was held anyway and the motion failed 1-2, with only Firmin voting in favor.
The votes came after more than an hour and a half of comments from developer Kevin Nguyen’s lawyer and engineer and from residents who complained about traffic and drainage problems along La. 929 and Parker Road, echoing comments they made to the commission in February.
Developer attorney David Cohn argued that the application had met all the parish’s requirements for a preliminary plat approval and some progress was being made and more would be made on the drainage concerns. Cohn and engineer Deric Murphy went through detailed explanations of the drainage plans and the findings of their engineering studies that show their project would have no impact on roads and actually reduce how much water immediately flows off the 29-acre site into surrounding drainage because of detention ponds.
“We meet the criteria for the ordinance, so legally we did what we had to do,” Cohn said.
No one from the volunteer commission, which heard the same staff recommendations as the Appeals Board did but voted to deny, spoke Monday to defend the Parish Council-appointed body’s decision-making.
But neighbors and two parish councilmen came to defend the commission’s decision. One item that drew muffled snickers from residents was that the developer’s traffic study had found the Parker Road/La. 929 intersection would remain rated a B after buildout.
Councilman Aaron Lawler later rose to point out that state highway officials had rated the intersection the parish’s most dangerous in 2009 and a roundabout planned for the intersection is not fully funded.
At the time, parish officials made the case that the intersection had the worst crash rating in the parish when they applied for and ended up receiving a state safety grant.
“The traffic studies aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. We haven’t had traffic studies in this parish that found there are any effects, so apparently we shouldn’t have any traffic,” Lawler said.
After his comments, several residents got up to note the traffic backups on Parker during school hours and Firmin noted he had been caught in traffic at the intersection earlier on Monday.
Dawn Mire Alleman, 41 who, as she did Feb. 10, described flooding that surrounded her house and trapped her daughters in her home, left the meeting upset and uncertain what the future would hold.
“That was ridiculous,” she said of the appeals board vote. “We put them in place to protect us.”
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.