In the 10th chapter of St. Luke’s gospel, an expert in the law asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan, a tale of violence, indifference and great mercy.
The battle over whether a Catholic school in Covington can build a new gym has featured little of the first two, but it does have plenty of experts in the law involved. And it is a dispute between neighbors.
On Monday night, the city’s Zoning Commission — at least the third public body to consider an application for the gym — tabled the issue indefinitely after concerns were raised about unresolved issues that must be decided by other city bodies.
With that decision, the yearlong battle that pits neighbor against neighbor looks set to carry over into at least early 2015.
On one side is St. Scholastica Academy, a 111-year-old, 650-student, all-girls school.
Gym proponents have made a simple case: The current gym, built in the 1960s and with a seating capacity of about 600, is too small for school assemblies and events such as graduations.
On the other side, many of those who live near the school fear the planned expansion — which would create an approximately 56,000-square-foot gym and multipurpose building on the school’s campus, as well as new parking areas — would overwhelm the historic character of the neighborhood and create traffic problems.
The neighbors charge the two-story structure would be out of keeping with their residential neighborhood, even though many of the opponents cite their connections to the school, either as students or as parents of students.
Both groups have thronged public meetings on the issue, most importantly when the issue went before the town’s Historic District Commission in April and then again in May when the City Council heard an appeal of the commission’s unanimous vote to issue a “certificate of appropriateness” for the project.
Turnout was so large for the latter meeting that the venue was changed to the School Board’s meeting chamber, which seats significantly more than the council’s chamber.
In somewhat of a surprise, the City Council voted 4-3 not to overturn the Historic District Commission’s vote, seemingly paving the way for the project to go forward.
Even so, proponents knew that political hurdles remained. The first was to get approval from the Zoning Commission on Monday night.
At first, the meeting appeared headed toward being a repeat of the earlier sessions. Several dozen supporters and opponents of the new gym filled seats in the School Board’s chamber. Many supporters wore blue stickers with “SSA” printed on them; opponents countered with green ribbons.
But none of them got to speak.
As soon as the item was brought up, Covington City Attorney Julian Rodrigue said that because of changes in the plans, any action the Zoning Commission could take would be contingent on votes by the Historic District Commission, the City Council and the city’s Board of Adjustment.
Rodrigue cited a new plan by St. Scholastica to demolish Jahncke Hall for parking spaces. Because it lies within the city’s historic district, the demolition would require a new approval by the Historic District Commission.
Rodrigue also mentioned concerns raised by the city’s arborist about whether the school’s oak preservation plan is sufficient, plus a plan by the school to build an entrance to one of the city’s historic small parking areas known as “ox lots.” The latter would require approval of the City Council, he said.
Finally, the footprint of the proposed gym has changed since the plan was first submitted. Even though the new footprint is smaller, Rodrigue insisted that the change should go before the Board of Adjustment.
After Rodrigue spoke, Commisioner David Moores moved that the issue be tabled indefinitely while the various issues move through the other public bodies. His motion was seconded by Ronald Vaccaro and unanimously adopted.
Paul Mayronne, an attorney who represents the school, strode to the podium as the meeting was breaking up, and his anger was evident.
“We have done our level best to play according to the rules and to meet the ordinances that were put in front of us,” Mayronne said. “But it feels like we are playing an unending game.”
Rodrigue said it was unavoidable.
“They changed the plans,” he said, emphasizing the pronoun. Emails had been exchanged on elements of the plans as recently as 10 a.m. Monday, he added.
After the meeting, Mayronne said the school would begin working on getting the necessary approvals from the City Council, Board of Adjustment and Historic District Commission.
The St. Scholastica project is the third in St. Tammany Parish in which the Archdiocese of New Orleans recently has found itself embroiled in disputes with people who live near proposed construction projects.
A project north of Mandeville generated considerable heat last year from local residents, who said the planned new church and retirement home would encroach upon their property and increase traffic in the Dove Park area. The controversy spawned the group Concerned Citizens of Covington, and protesters carrying signs were visible when Archbishop Gregory Aymond came to the north shore in November 2013 to bless a road through the property.
And earlier this year, the pastor of Our Lady of the Lake Church in Old Mandeville announced that the church would not go through with plans to renovate the church to nearly double its seating capacity.
“The Parish Council and Building Committee of Our Lady of the Lake Church have voted not to continue the program to build a new church. I regret that I was not able to convince enough people that a new church was in the best interest of the parish and the city of Mandeville,” the Rev. Mark Lomax said.
In a September interview, Aymond said the church’s building projects are a response to growth.
“There is a greater need on the north shore,” he said. “There are more Catholics there than there ever have been.”
The church, he added, just wants to provide proper pastoral care to those people. But, he said, the church is committed to following the political processes just like everyone else.
“We want to be good neighbors,” he said. “Our goal is not just to help Catholics but to support the community and make the community a better place.”
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.