GONZALES — A rarely used arm of Ascension Parish government meets Monday and will step into the middle of a running debate over the extent of the parish Planning Commission’s power.
The Planning Commission Appeals Board is set to weigh in at the Parish Courthouse Annex in Gonzales at 6 p.m. on America Homeland’s request to overturn the commission’s denial Feb. 10 of the 86-home Brookstone development in Prairieville.
The commissioners denied the project 3-1, as residents brought drainage concerns stemming from surrounding subdivisions even after parish planners recommended approval.
Since 1997, the three-person Appeals Board has met twice, most recently in January 2015 over the commission’s series of denials of a special kind of land division in Ascension involving family heirs that is known as a family partition. The board upheld the commission 2-1.
America Homeland, owned by developer Kevin Nguyen, has claimed the commissioners acted arbitrarily when they denied Brookstone and, in doing so, may have negated their legal immunity as volunteer members of the seven-member panel.
At the time of denial, the commission was heading into a major change in membership and had faced months of criticism that members would not use their discretionary authority to deny projects that would rely on overstressed infrastructure.
Some, like Nguyen’s attorney, David Cohn, said the commission’s power to say no is limited to whether or not projects follow parish development rules. He said Brookstone met all of those requirements for the preliminary plat stage, a key early approval in Ascension’s development review process.
“We think that if you have a subdivision that, in fact, does meet those criteria, it needs to be approved,” Cohn said.
Others, like Parish Councilmen Aaron Lawler and Daniel “Doc” Satterlee, said the commission can act when a project is deemed to threaten the health, safety and welfare of the parish.
Satterlee, a former planning commissioner himself, has often charged that if the commission does not have this discretion, the body amounts to a rubber stamp.
“If a new development causes health and safety problems, which I believe this one does and several others have in the past, that is the basis to deny a development whether or not the studies were done,” Lawler said.
Lending some credence to Lawler’s point of view, he and others note, is that state law says the approval of subdivision plats is a legislative function afforded discretion.
The parish administration has asked the state Attorney General’s Office to clarify the question.
But Parish Attorney O’Neil Parenton Jr. told the Attorney General’s Office in a Jan. 26 letter requesting the opinion that parish legal advisers have told commissioners to exercise that power “cautiously” when projects comply with all parish rules. Otherwise, commissioners could face personal legal liability for their decisions.
Nguyen’s appeal to the parish points to the same body of case law that Parenton noted to claim the commission exceeded its power when it denied Brookstone.
Should the Appeals Board deny Nguyen, he could sue.
The Appeals Board will meet after its members were appointed in the nick of time. Under parish ordinance, the Appeals Board must meet on an appeal within 40 days of one being filed.
According to Lawler, if the board doesn’t, then the commission’s decision is overturned.
But with the deadline approaching late last month for the Appeals Board to meet on Brookstone’s March 7 appeal, Parish President Kenny Matassa appointed two new members and reappointed a third so the Parish Council could vote on their ratification April 7. The former board members’ terms expired at the end of former Parish President Tommy Martinez’s term.
The Appeals Board members are Jimmy Rousseau, assistant supervisor of the state Office of Probation and Parole; Fritz Englade, a Gonzales businessman and prior member of the board; and Ken Firmin, a former trash service company owner who ran for Parish Council District 7 last year and sought a spot on the Planning Commission earlier this year.