GONZALES — The Ascension Parish Council allowed the developer the Belle Savanne subdivision to finish the neighborhood without the construction of a road linking La. 73 in Dutchtown with Bluff Road.
That section of La. 73 southwest of I-10 and near Dutchtown High School is one of the more congested areas of Ascension Parish. State and parish officials have been trying to mitigate traffic on La. 73 and La. 74 and end standstill backups on Interstate 10.
The council decision will mean the last 96 homes in the 285-home development can be built and sold. That could eventually add more traffic to the busy corridor before improvements are likely to be finished -- though perhaps not for long.
Council members granted the appeal without opposition after they heard from parish administration staffers that the parish was planning its own connector road through the Move Ascension program. Several of their comments were more focused on the connector route's prospects than the Belle Savanne condition itself.
The future road would tie together La. 73 and Bluff Road through vacant land just north of the Crestview Estates neighborhood and could be just two years away, said Joey Tureau, the parish's chief engineer.
A cost figure hasn't be developed yet, Tureau said, as early land analysis is underway.
The council vote Thursday overturns the decision of the parish Planning Commission in August to stand by a late 2015 condition that Belle Savanne wait until a construction job to build the connector had been awarded before the development could be finished. The developer, Engquist-Level Development, appealed that decision, sending it the council.
Empowered by stiffer development policies, the Planning Commission had begun in recent years to place development restrictions tied to new state or parish road improvements. And it has often held to them even after developers had come back asking for reconsideration because the work wasn't done.
Earlier this year, the Parish Council, acting as an appeal board, upheld a subdivision rejection based on traffic analyses and has been sued over that decision. But Teri Casso, the council chairwoman, said this case is different from those others and wouldn't undercut the commission's other decisions.
"I think this was a clear=cut case of the contingency could not be met. If you can do it, then you have to, but this could not be done," she said after the vote, which came after the council met about 10 minutes in closed session with its legal adviser.
The developer made the same argument before the Planning Commission in August and again on Thursday in Gonzales.
David Cohn, attorney for Engquist-Level Development, told the council that government officials have abandoned the original plan on which the condition was set -- an La. 73-Bluff link running through Belle Savanne and built by the parish and state -- in favor of another route to the north.
They argued the parish couldn't hold the developer to a condition the company could not legally fulfill after state highway officials backed way from the route through Belle Savanne.
"The parish drank the Kool-Aid. It got sold to the applicant because they had plenty of time to have to worry about this later and the state was promising, 'We're fixing to crack on this,'" Cohn said. "They didn't crack. They didn't do anything. Now they've abandoned it. So, what do we have here? We have a condition on a preliminary plat that will not be fulfilled."
Belle Savanne's overall site empties onto La. 73 but doesn't extend to Bluff. Pursuing a route through the neighborhood to Bluff would have required additional land acquisitions to make the complete link.
On Thursday, parish officials noted that the lands necessary for that linkage either had complicated multiple ownership or landowners not interesting in selling.
Only the state, parish or federal government -- and not a private developer -- has the legal power of expropriation to force a land sale at a fair market price from an unwilling seller.
Cohn said the builder had also already constructed all other traffic mitigation requirements imposed by the parish and state, including turn lanes on and off La. 73, and also added a two-lane boulevard with a median to help facilitate the connection -- at a cost of $380,000.
No one from the public spoke in opposition to the relieving the developer from the condition. But some said they opposed a connection through Belle Savanne or Crestview Estates -- which Cohen said is not planned -- and aired concerns about the property that parish currently has under consideration.