GONZALES — Both sides in a dispute over a major new development at Burnside’s Houmas House plantation say they welcome the future boost to Ascension Parish tourism.
But that agreement has not stopped the River Road project from sitting in regulatory limbo amid a broader dispute about growth in the state’s fastest-growing parish from 2000 to 2010.
Houmas House owner Kevin Kelly is proposing to build a hotel, a series of bed-and-breakfast cottages along an oak alley, ball and conference rooms, and other improvements in connection with a steamboat museum.
The new museum, which is to sit on a Mississippi River batture across the levee from the new project, has been awarded a $5.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
At the heart of the delay is a disagreement about the future of planned unit developments.
PUDs are a flexible style of development hailed in the mid-2000s as a way for Ascension to catch up and control growth.
Since then, they have drawn criticism over promoting too much development, along with other “smart growth” measures more welcomed in East Baton Rouge Parish.
On Thursday, the Parish Council will begin considering an end to a law requiring PUDs in a specially defined area around Houmas House.
Full public discussion and a possible final vote on the proposed change, which wouldn’t affect developers’ ability to choose to do PUDs, won’t happen until September.
Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne said he is optimistic the project will proceed but is not aware of the politics behind the delay.
“I hope there is going to be a resolution and the project is going to be able to move forward because I think the project is huge for south Louisiana,” said Dardenne, who oversees state tourism.
The lieutenant governor had a get-to-know-you lunch with Kelly at Houmas House’s Cafe Burnside on Aug. 12 that had been planned more than a month prior. The delay did come up, the men said.
Two days earlier, on Aug. 10, a split Ascension Parish Planning Commission blocked Houmas House, which was up for a review of its architecture, on the grounds it did not meet PUD overlay requirements.
The 2009 law requires sizable projects to be done as PUDs in an area of rural tracts south of Interstate 10 near Burnside.
Kelly has said he does not want to apply a PUD to his project because it does not fit with a historic site.
“The law is the law. The law doesn’t allow what he is wanting to do at this point and time,” Commissioner Bob Nance said.
Some commissioners who blocked the project, like Nance, are also critics of PUDs. Their 4-3 vote ended in acrimony with Kelly accusing them of holding his project hostage to a political agenda.
“They’re using me to change the (PUD) law,” Kelly said moments after the vote. “That’s exactly what they’re doing.”
Commissioner Julio Dumas, who voted against denial, said the commission was politicizing the issue and that its actions were “shameful.”
PUDs are focused on creating holistic communities with sidewalks, parks and green space but have drawn fire over the strong negotiating hand, critics say, the law gives developers to extract more housing density.
Commission Chairman Michael Marchand, who cast the tie-breaking fourth vote Aug. 10, said that vote and a separate call for the council to kill the PUD overlay reflect the public will.
“The only solution we see to fixing this is abolishing the ordinance altogether. I think the commission is trying to listen to what the public has said,” he said.
Though Parish Planning Director Ricky Compton said Kelly is planning to appeal to the commission next month about its vote, some councilman said that they will back ending the PUD overlay.
Councilman Adrian Thompson, who represents the Houmas House area, said constituents have been asking for the PUD overlay to be removed, and he will support that.
Councilman Todd Lambert, a PUD critic and a supporter of Kelly’s project, said he is ready to end the overlay.
Councilman Kent Schexnaydre, a backer of PUDs and the PUD overlay, said he will support ending the overlay to allow significant economic development to proceed.
“I’m tired of seeing people with good projects getting slowed down,” he said. “All of this other stuff is secondary to me as far as I am concerned.”
Kelly has three years to start museum construction under his grant, said Jacques Berry, Dardenne spokesman.
Kelly said he needs to drive piles for the museum during the river’s low-water periods in the fall and believed he was under a much-tighter timeline than three years.
Though he supports PUDs and other smart growth ideas, he said he would like to see his project go forward anyway.
“I don’t think it’s right (to end the PUD overlay), but I guess I will be happy if they do do it,” he said.