GONZALES — The Ascension Parish Council on Thursday gave parish government’s clutch of planners and staff engineers a bit more time to review traffic and engineering studies tied to new housing projects.
The move is aimed at providing a better chance for those studies to adequately address drainage and traffic impacts from new housing before the parish Planning Commission is asked for approval.
An embattled commission, which is losing five of its seven members early this year, asked for the changes last year. Parish Planning Director Ricky Compton said Thursday parish officials need the extra time.
“We’re understaffed and over-worked. We’re getting entirely too much development pressure, and we don’t have enough people to do adequate reviews in a timely fashion,” Compton told Parish Council Chairman Randy Clouatre.
The unopposed change had been delayed Dec. 3 by the prior council to get more input, but, on Thursday, a few council members urged parish engineers to stand their ground with developers over those studies’ findings and even more signaled they were open to much bigger changes in how the parish reviews new housing developments.
“What will work for us? That’s what we need to know as councilmen to help you,” Council Vice Chairman Todd Lambert told Compton. “And that’s what we’re getting from the public is, you know, the council needs to make some decisions, so let us know what we need to do and, I said, we’ll give you all the help we can give.”
Compton and Chief Administrative Officer Ken Dawson said many of those bigger changes are being discussed. Under what the council approved Thursday, developers must turn in their preliminary plats and related engineering studies 60 days before a commission meeting. The old deadline was 45 days.
While the new deadline gives parish officials more time, it also bumps up against a maximum time limit in state law. Under state law, planning commissions must act to approve or deny a preliminary plat in 60 days, or the plat, a key early step that sets down the layout for a new subdivision, is automatically approved.
The deadline change comes after months criticism of the commission, which some contend has not used all its legal powers to block projects proposed for overextended roads and drainage ways. As part of that debate, some also have taken issue with the commission’s practice of approving projects on the contingency that the review of road and drainage studies be completed to parish officials’ satisfaction. For the past year or more, Ascension has seen a wave of new housing projects proposed, with several getting contingency approval and then lingering months or longer within the parish administration, and outside public view, before construction starts.
Rhonda Braud, parish drainage engineer, told the Planning Commission last week that seven housing projects previously approved under contingency remain unreconciled and unable to move forward to construction due to pending drainage or traffic studies.
Compton told the council Thursday that the studies get tied up in the back-and-forth among engineers after parish staffers come up with lengthy lists of comments critiquing the developer-funded work.
Some council members questioned why developers weren’t submitting more complete studies that didn’t draw so many comments in the first place.
But Compton said that, with drainage, those debates often fall into gray areas.
“Engineers like to argue, just like lawyers,” Compton told Councilman Travis Turner, a lawyer by profession.
Deric Murphy, an engineer who represents many of the developers bringing projects before the commission, was present for the meeting Thursday but did not speak. He said afterward that he expected the deadline change would pass due to the number of contingencies that have been authorized recently but said the new deadlines will cost developers more money.
“Time is money,” Murphy said.
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