MODESTE — The Ascension Parish Council is poised to cast a final vote Thursday on a long-term plan to earmark 17,000 acres of sparsely populated farmland along River Road for a major new industrial complex expected to take decades to come to fruition.
The proposal is intended to promote the orderly development of new industry along the Mississippi River with well-thought-out rail, pipeline and river access and buffer zones for existing homes.
Seeing that large industrial tracts along the east bank of the river have become scarce, parish officials have been working for a few years to transform one of the state’s largest remaining sections of undeveloped property with navigable deepwater access on the river into a better planned version of Geismar.
But the plan also would set the stage for a dramatic change to a rural corner of the west bank side of Ascension Parish that has remained in farming and generally been untouched by industries that are seen across the river on the parish’s east bank riverfront and even downriver in Donaldsonville.
The most affected area will be a 10-mile stretch along River Road that includes the tiny communities of Modeste and McCall.
Residents who would live next to this new complex offered a mix of opinions about the plan earlier this week. Some accepted the potential changes and their benefits while others were concerned about the possible impacts on residents.
For some, the realization that residents could one day live near large industrial operations — even with proposed buffers — led them to argue for buy-outs.
Jenny Mitchell, 33, who lives at the end of Taylor Road off La. 405 and next to an agricultural field, said she has sick children who suffer from allergies and asthma and can’t live next to chemical operations.
“Buy us out. We can’t live by no plants. Let them know that,” Mitchell said.
Others said they were interested in the plan and might be willing to move on their own, if needed, but felt if Modeste was bearing the burden of new industries, its residents should benefit from the permanent jobs that will be created.
Randall Rome, 27, who lives along La. 405, said he works in industry but could only find a job in St. Gabriel, not at nearby CF Industries in Donaldsonville. With the closure of the White Castle ferry a few years ago, Rome said he must drive downriver to the Sunshine Bridge and back upriver to St. Gabriel each day.
“I’m all for it. I know it’s all about making money, but if they’re going to put these chemical plants in the area, at least make it beneficial to the people living in the area,” Rome said.
In addition to jobs, Rome said Modeste needs a gas station and a grocery store. There are none. He said even Donaldsonville needs more shopping options than Wal-Mart, noting the city has only one other store besides the retail giant to buy clothes for his 4-year-old son.
Effrem Diggs, 55, who also lives along La. 405, pointed to other industrial projects where, he said, locals might get temporary construction jobs but hardly ever the permanent ones. He said there is no guarantee that pattern wouldn’t be repeated.
“They’ll hire people from out of town before they hire people right here,” he said.
Parish Councilman Oliver Joseph, who represents the Modeste area and has been heavily involved in development of the plan, said many of those concerns, while understandable, are still early with no actual prospects yet, and make it hard to offer guarantees at this point.
“Nobody can guarantee jobs in the area,” he said, but added that the parish can make sure future companies offer training.
Also, the parish is still conducting feasibility studies on rail and port access that are critical for the whole concept to work, while tough federal ozone standards make a major influx of heavy polluting chemical plants far from certain, parish officials noted.
Mike Eades, chief executive officer of the Ascension Economic Development Corp., said the plan, which eases the path for future rezonings, creates 1,320 feet of buffer between homes and the heaviest industry. The plan allows future rezonings of residential areas to a mixed use that would allow residents to sell to small businesses.
“If people want to sell, it should provide them a higher value,” he said of the future mixed-use rezonings.
The council meets at the Parish Courthouse, 300 Houmas St., Donaldsonville.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.