GONZALES — They shoulda done it 30 years ago when they had the chance.
That armchair refrain is a common utterance in fast-growing Ascension Parish, whenever parish leaders gather and start talking about big infrastructure plans for roads, sewer or drainage — especially ones that might involve new fees or taxes.
The comment is a criticism of past parish leaders who residents blame for failing to plan for the future, leaving the parish with clogged roads and hodgepodge sewer service. But it’s also dismissive of the efforts of present-day leaders trying to accomplish what their predecessors couldn’t or wouldn’t do.
Having grown by more than half since 2000, Ascension has remained of one Louisiana’s fastest growing parishes. But for years, it has been caught in an internal struggle, upset with the current conditions but unable to agree on an overarching solution.
The 11-member Parish Council, in a unanimous vote, took a stab at what some see as at least a partial solution when they approved transportation impact fees earlier this month on all new development. They then carried the threat of a six-month moratorium on new subdivisions in their back pocket, which was dropped once the fees were adopted.
Whether it’s been master plans, planned unit developments, new subdivision rules, new taxes or altering the existing revenue base to tilt it toward infrastructure, parish leaders, builders, businesses and residents have gone round and round over how to get a firm handle on population growth and infrastructure needs.
After watching voters a few years ago reject new proposed taxes for roads, firefighters and recreation and seeing attempts to rededicate existing millage rates fail to get off the ground, the council, with three new members in office, reconsidered the road impact fee idea, which died nearly 10 years ago by one vote.
“They said, ‘We looked at this 10 years ago.’ Well, when you going to do something about it? ‘We looked at sewer 20 years ago.’ That’s all I heard for the past two years. But when you going to do something,” said Council Chairman Randy Clouatre minutes after the impact fee vote April 7 in Donaldsonville. “We do have a responsibility to actually try to look into future a little and try, at least, (position) the parish for the future, if not lay a path.”
Councilman Todd Lambert, who opposed traffic impact fees in June 2006, supported them this time. He said he didn’t hear true opposition from his constituents, saw the strong support of the council and was concerned about the moratorium also on that night’s agenda. It had been passed out of committee with a unanimous vote, one short of a needed majority.
“I looked at the moratorium, that this (impact fees) would kill the moratorium, and I went ahead with it,” he said.
The moratorium would have denied builders future access to Ascension and its highly ranked school system. Still, the effect likely would have been delayed because the parish has seen about 5,100 subdivision lots receive at least key early approval and move toward, if not reach, completion between January 2014 and late March, parish data show.
Gary Binns, a commercial real estate broker with Realty Executives, said smaller, custom builders would have been hit hard because far fewer lots are available for them in Ascension than tract home builders.
“I think it (the moratorium) got everyone’s attention. Did it help mitigate some of the opposition? I’m sure,” Binns said.
The new impact fee program, which is expected to take effect in the coming days barring legal challenges, would charge one-time fees on new homes, apartments, mobile homes, gas stations, movie theaters, shopping centers and schools, among other construction, on a varying scale primarily tied to building square footage.
A single-family home between 2,000 and 2,999-square-feet would cost $1,933. The fee is charged when the building permit is pulled.
Because the fees are tied to the building permit, the parish will be able to collect fees from newly built homes in subdivisions long since approved, several on the council believe.
Still, the fees, which are expected to generate $2 million per year, are expected to fall short of what’s required to fix Ascension’s well-documented traffic troubles.
“It’s not the silver bullet,” said Councilman Bill Dawson, a major sponsor of the impact fee ordinance and the proposed moratorium.
Under the legal framework for the fees, they can’t fix existing problems but must be aimed at the new impacts created by new developments. The council has created three districts parishwide to limit where fees can be spent.
Also, major road work isn’t cheap.
The developers of the future Riverton subdivision off La. 22 in Burnside agreed in March to pay whatever impact fees the council would decide on this month.
The 780-home project, one of the largest in the parish the past few years, has been projected to generate $1.5 million in fees. But a traffic study suggests a $4 million roundabout would be needed at La. 22 and La. 44 for the traffic from the development and surrounding projects.
But Dawson said the fees can help the parish with matches required for state and federal government funding and also help with smaller projects.
Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee said he sees such fees as the future since voters have clearly expressed their opposition to new taxes. He said he and some of his colleagues are interested in user fees for other needs: schools, parks, firefighters and recreation.
“People don’t want taxes,” he said. “That was exemplified by our prior taxes that did not pass last time.”
Builders, developers and the real estate industry fought hard against impact fees in Ascension 10 years ago, but the response was more muted this time until the very end.
They aired concerns about slowing growth, pricing out first-time and lower-end home buyers and the unfairness of singling out one industry for a revenue stream that fluctuates with the market.
“It puts a burden of taxation that ought to be spread amongst all of the people who are going to be using the infrastructure instead of just those who are buying new properties in Ascension,” said Herb Gomez, executive vice president of the Greater Baton Rogue Association of Realtors.
Gomez said a sales tax would be a better way to pay for infrastructure. However, Ascension Parish voters rejected a half-cent sales tax for roads that was on the ballot in November 2012 by a vote of 57 percent against to 43 percent in favor.
Even at the lowest end on Ascension’s new impact fee scale — $1,489 for a home of fewer than 1,000 square feet — the fees are far higher than traffic impact fees in St. Tammany or East Baton Rouge parishes.
St. Tammany charges a flat $1,077 for single-family homes; East Baton Rouge charges $855 for the largest homes, fee schedules say.
Fees for commercial projects in Ascension would be even heftier under the idea they have more impact on roads than homes.
The new 49,000-square-foot Tiger Honda dealership along Airline Highway north of Gonzales, where construction is nearing an end after months of work, would have faced around $114,000 in one-time fees, according to a company square-footage estimate and the new fee applied to general retail projects.
Within six months, the parish plans to hire a consultant to update the fees, which were taken from a fee schedule developed in the mid-2000s when impact fees were first considered for Ascension. Though reaction seems muted so far, sticker shock is setting in for some.
Chase Melancon, 29, a plant operator, lives with his father-in-law in Prairieville, while he and his fiancé e prepare to build a house on an acre off La. 429 in St. Amant. Melancon said he likes the idea of charging fees on new subdivisions with hundreds of homes but doesn’t understand how a lifelong resident of the parish is creating a new impact.
While he’s learned he won’t have to pay $2,500 in sewer impact fees to build on an individual lot outside a subdivision, Melancon said, the $1,726 fee for his future 1,900-square-foot home still hurts.
“I just can’t make myself see how they make any sense,” said Melancon, who sent a letter to all 11 council members about his concerns. “I was born and raised on Highway 621. I’m not impacting anything. I’ve been on these roads.”
Council members said various studies show impact fees, which are rare in Louisiana but widespread in South Atlantic and Western states, have not slowed growth in other communities.
Sewer impact fees took effect in Gonzales in January 2014 and been in place with little fanfare, city officials said.
“I don’t think it has slowed down anybody,” said Clay Stafford, the city clerk.
He said smaller, local residential developers push back, but builders of hotels, chain restaurants and tract homes don’t.
“It’s basically on their check list already. They don’t even blink at it because they’re used to paying it in these other jurisdictions,” Stafford said.
He said the city fees, which are tied to the size of the water meter, are $2,742 for a house and have raised about $500,000. Stafford estimated just the 900 homes in the future Conway mixed-use development at the I-10/Burnside exit could generate around $2.5 million. He said the money will help pay down a $15 million loan the city is taking out for a planned expansion of its 2.5 million gallon per day sewer plant.
In St. Tammany, meanwhile, the parish drainage and road impact fees have generated $21.2 million between early 2005 and February.
Between 2007 and 2010, $3.4 million in road fees were used in a $13.5 million project to widen part of La. 21 to four lanes, said Amy Bouton, St. Tammany government spokeswoman.
St. Tammany readjusted and lowered its fees three years ago as part of a required re-evaluation every few years, a requirement that’s also included in the new Ascension programs.
Jules Guidry, president of the Northshore Home Builders Association, said ups and downs in the housing market have been tied to the broader economy in St. Tammany, not impact fees as far as he can tell.
Binns, the Prairieville real estate broker who handled the land sale for the Conway project in Gonzales, sees impact fees as a necessary part of doing business.
“I think most developers understand that impact fees are necessary as long as they are kept at a reasonable rate,” Binns said. “Baton Rouge has impact fees. The city of Gonzales has impact fees. It’s not going to stop development, like a moratorium would have.”
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.