With a steady surge of new residents into Ascension Parish causing traffic gridlock, pressure is mounting on parish leaders to approve fewer new neighborhoods that would put more cars on the road. But the population growth is also a boom for developers, who are itching to build in a high-demand area.

That tension is at the center of a lawsuit that could test the parish's ability to prevent new houses from going up. And it speaks to a political debate that helped sweep a new parish president and council members into power: When and how should government block new construction in the name of limiting traffic?

The lawsuit concerns the Parish Council and Planning Commission's rejection this year of a plan to build a 237-home neighborhood, Antebellum Pointe, in the fast-growing area along La. 73 between Airline Highway and Interstate 10.

A primary reason the Parish Council narrowly failed in July to overturn the commission's rejection of the development stemmed from concerns about more vehicles in an already-congested area. There was significant public opposition to the plan before both panels. Twenty-two people spoke against it during a public meeting before the commission in March.

The Delaune family, which has owned and raised cattle on the 86-acre site for Antebellum Pointe for more than a century, is suing. They claim the council's rejection deprived them of an estimated $7 million sale.

They say the denial was an arbitrary and capricious decision and an "unreasonable exercise of police powers." 

The lawsuit asks a state court to overturn the parish's decisions and to authorize the subdivision plan for the newly-named Delaune Estates — or to award the family damages to compensate for their losses on the land, plus attorneys' fees and all other fees and costs.

The plaintiffs — William Delaune Jr., Diane Francis King, four other members of the Delaune family and a family partnership — claim the rejection confines their property to agricultural use, so it isn't worth the $81,500 per acre they had been offered to develop it.

Martin McConnell, parish government spokesman, said the parish has not yet been served with the suit and declined to comment. Council members also declined comment, saying they still hadn't been served.

Michael Clegg, the attorney representing the Delaunes in the lawsuit, was not available for comment last week.

The lawsuit is a major test of a new, tougher traffic impact policy the parish adopted in 2018 and a tougher stance the commission has taken with that policy now in place. It's also a test for an appeal process that changed a few years ago and put the final say on new projects with the Parish Council.

Critics of the old policy had complained for years that it seemed hardly ever to find traffic impact as new neighborhoods of 100, 200 or more homes were steadily approved off increasingly congested state highways.  

What eventually came to light in the mid-2010s was that the old policy didn't require soon enough that builders do a deep analysis of the spillover traffic impacts on intersections down the road from new homes.

The new policy requires this type of analysis for smaller developments and also sets benchmarks to measure projected traffic impacts. It is the failure to maintain some of those minimum traffic flow benchmarks that has tripped up the Delaune project. 

Under the law, the commission and council do have the power to block new projects for the health, safety and welfare of the public, parish legal advisors have said through years. But the officials must have a rational, factual basis to make that kind of decision and face a high legal standard to defend those decisions.

In recent years, the new traffic policy — with its more frequent, deeper looks at traffic impact — has helped provide that factual basis amid increasing public scrutiny of the parish's planning decisions.

So, even a few years before, but especially after, these new management tools took effect, the council and appointed Planning Commission have become more willing to say "no" or require new developments like Oak Lake in Burnside or Highland Trace and Lake at West Creek in Prairieville to wait on road improvements or pony up for temporary measures before new homes have an impact on roads.

Again, on Thursday, the Parish Council rejected a proposed 60-unit condominium project known as Lakes at Henderson Bayou amid traffic and housing density concerns even though the Planning Commission and staff recommended it. In that instance, the project needed a special kind of zoning change, with which the council has more discretion than the type of preliminary plan at issue for Delaune Estates or other projects, but the overriding concerns remain the same. 

Former two-term parish council member and planning commissioner Daniel "Doc" Satterlee was among those who pressed parish officials in the mid-2010s about the old traffic policy and had argued to switch commission appeals from a rarely used appointed panel to the full council for more public accountability.

Satterlee said he believes the commission and council have acted as those changes were envisioned to apply in the case of Antebellum Pointe, which would be built in his old Council District 4.

"There were certain weakness, loopholes and everything in the system; those were corrected," he said. "And so it's no surprise" that parish officials have been voting has they have been on new projects. "It's time we go to court now. That's why we have the three branches of government."

Satterlee split from the man who beat him at the polls last fall, Corey Orgeron, who voted with a council majority in July to overturn the commission amid concerns about being sued but his side failed to get the necessary two-thirds vote.

The Antebellum Pointe suit also takes individual aim at first-term Parish President Clint Cointment, who recommended in public letters to the commission in March and to the Parish Council in July to deny the project over traffic concerns on La. 73 and the lack of parish government sewer service.

In the suit, the plaintiffs accuse Cointment of "likely improper influence" on appeal hearing testimony from parish staff and the parish's contract engineers, though the plaintiffs don't describe what that influence was.

The suit also alleges Cointment wrongfully joined the second of two closed-door sessions during that hearing on July 27 when the Parish Council received legal advice.

"His urging and/or physical presence influenced and dissuaded certain" council members from casting a vote that would have supported the project by overturning the commission's decision, the suit alleges.

Cointment ran last year on getting better control on growth until infrastructure has a chance to catch up and, in interviews, suggested that would happen through nuts-and-bolts regulatory changes that didn't specifically affect underlying zoning of property.

Even before Cointment took office, though, the parish has gradually tightened how it regulates growth: In recent years, it has adopted road and sewer impact fees; required more complete amenities, like parks, underground drainage and sidewalks, in new subdivisions; limited the use of dirt fill to raise homes that some have blamed on long-standing drainage problems; and toughened storm water detention rules.

First-term council member Chase Melancon, an ally of Cointment, has pushed to bring in further toughening of standards, with limited success so far.

The steps have garnered some pushback from some former longtime builders in the parish, like Billy Aguillard, who said in a recent interview that the increasing requirements in Ascension have pushed him to other parishes in the Baton Rouge area.

But, with increasing pressure on parish officials to let infrastructure catch up and years of promises unfulfilled, it may be that Antebellum Pointe came up for approval just a little too soon in March and July. 

Representatives of the Delaunes had contended they had followed all the parish's requirements for traffic, drainage, sewage and other matters. But the parish staff and the parish consulting engineer said that, without the I-10 widening under construction and also changing traffic light timing on La. 73, the project would not comply with the traffic policy.

The Delaunes' representatives argued that a $72 million state widening of I-10 from four to six lanes between Highland Road and La. 73 would help alleviate traffic backups, as traffic studies suggested. 

The Delaunes also offered to delay the occupancy of homes until 2022 and take other measures to delay the traffic impact on La. 73 until after I-10 is finished.

Some parish officials, however, suggested then that the developer first wait until I-10 is finished.

"My advice and I think the solution for everybody would be a new traffic impact study once this third lane opens (on each side of I-10) and that way we know for sure," Melancon said in the July 27 appeal hearing. "This is just my opinion. This is my two cents, 'assumed' and 'expected' for the people who live on (La.) 73 is a tough pill to swallow right now."

Melancon was among four votes against overturning the commission, just enough on the 11-member council to block the necessary two-thirds vote.

Others worried the subdivision met the policy's requirements or didn't want to risk a lawsuit worth $7 million to $8 million for what would amount an additional 18-second delay in traffic at one intersection on La. 73 without the added improvements.

"And, for the last week, I've been pondering that. I have been going back and forth: Do we risk an $8 million judgment over 18 seconds," asked Orgeron, who was among six council members who supported overturning the commission decision.

Rodney Mallett, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said the widening of I-10 is expected to be finished in November, weather permitting. He added that the developers have not requested light signalization changes on La. 73.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.