GONZALES — Just weeks before a new Ascension Parish Council was seated and Parish President Tommy Martinez started his fourth term four years ago, the departing Parish Council took care of some unfinished business.
The council cleaned house with a restive Planning and Zoning Commission that had taken a tough line on new development and had bucked the parish’s top leadership time and again.
The council shrunk the size of the volunteer, council-appointed commission from nine to seven members, cut terms from four to two years and made any interested outgoing members reapply for their jobs.
No one who had been removed from the commission was reappointed in 2012. Cause and effect were pretty clear.
Now four years later, as a new parish leadership takes over, four of the commission’s seven members have submitted their resignations and a fifth says he’s soon to follow.
All took their seats after the late 2011 house cleaning and are leaving amid criticism from some that they have failed to use their authority under state law to block new housing projects due to Ascension’s broad troubles with roads, sewer and other infrastructure.
Several of the commissioners who are leaving — citing legal advice — say their powers are limited when it comes to projects that otherwise meet parish requirements. It is left to the Parish Council, they say, to make the big decisions about infrastructure and growth.
Lester Kenyon, parish government spokesman, said Parish President Kenny Matassa has asked for an opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office to clarify the lines of authority.
The request comes after Jeff Pettit, a Gonzales-area resident, asked the Parish Council on Jan. 7 to seek the opinion.
Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee, a former commissioner himself, took up Pettit’s cause and asked Matassa to seek the opinion.
“Kenny, please, sir, I have great empathy for you,” Satterlee said at the meeting. “You inherited a mess here. God bless you to solve it, but the people have elected you to do so. We need, as Mr. Pettit said, an attorney general opinion here.”
Matassa took office this month after a close November runoff that focused on parish growth and infrastructure needs.
Pettit has created a Change.org petition to remove the commission, over what he sees as its failure to use what he contends is its broad power to limit subdivisions.
It had 194 signatures by Saturday.
Departing commissioners say their reasons for leaving are unrelated to criticisms like those lodged by Pettit, but Commissioner Joshua Ory acknowledged that the post can be demanding.
Ory said his service on the commission has affected his family life but that he’ll stay on to maintain a quorum until the council has replaced him and his fellow commissioners.
“All these problems the parish is facing have really been weighing on me too much at home,” Ory said.
Council Chairman Randy Clouatre said he welcomed Matassa’s decision to seek an opinion as he works on appointments to the council committee that vets members of appointed parish boards and commissions.
Newly elected Councilman Bill Dawson said the commissioners have a right to their opinion on what their authority is but said he’d want the commission to have the ability to consider infrastructure when making decisions about development.
“I think, depending on what part of the parish you are in, the infrastructure is overwhelmed,” Dawson said. “My opinion is we need to give that commission the authority to consider that.”
The planning commissioners essentially stand on the front lines of Ascension’s struggle with booming population growth.
Month by month, subdivision by subdivision, they must weigh how the parish should grow as they hear residents voice familiar concerns about overburdened roads and drainage systems.
Although the commissioners don’t pass taxes or adopt laws, they do recommend changes to the council. They also have final authority on preliminary subdivision plats, the initial plan for a new development and a key step toward new growth.
As a result, the commissioners are often on the receiving end of complaints about how the parish has handled growth and urged to say “no” or to hold up a project.
But departing Commissioner Gasper Chifici said the commission can’t block projects that meet parish requirements.
He said he has been told he could be sued individually if he tried to do what critics suggest.
“We’re not going to effectively have a moratorium on development. If the council wants a moratorium, the council has to take that action. They have that authority,” Chifici said.
Commission Chairman Matt Pryor, an Ascension lawyer, said residents who complain about drainage and traffic don’t bring studies or other data to counter the studies developers have conducted according to parish rules.
He shares Chifici’s view that limits on growth fall under the council’s purview.
“We’re being asked to substitute our judgment for the judgment of the Parish Council,” Pryor said. “It is a very dangerous thing because the Planning and Zoning Commission is not elected. We’re an appointed body”
On Wednesday, the commissioners, with several voting for the last time, grappled again with these questions as they debated whether to back the 56-lot Grand Oaks subdivision off Cornerview Road outside Gonzales and a 345-acre expansion of New Roads developer L.J. Grezaffi’s Ascension Commerce Center in Geismar.
The commissioners questioned whether they could apply various contingencies for approval based on unfinished drainage and traffic studies or deny the projects within the law.
In each case, the commission backed the projects with contingencies after it was assured the developers had satisfied or were on the path to satisfying major concerns with the studies.
The commission also has gotten nowhere with a past request to the council for more parish staff to speed up the review of projects
In addition to required turn lanes, Grezaffi agreed to pay for a new traffic light where a new road in his Ascension Commerce Center will meet La. 73 one day, if the light is needed within the next 10 years.
But the commission did not address increased traffic at nearby La. 30 and La. 73. Already an F-rated intersection on a busy industrial corridor, Grezaffi’s project will boost traffic by 11 percent at build-out.
Parish rules do not require that he take steps to improve an intersection not directly tied to his project.