A developer some Ascension Parish residents have criticized for allowing silt to wash into their lakes, worsening flooding and pollution, has continued violating construction rules despite a fine in 2019, state regulators say.
The new townhouse project in the Oak Grove area, by Dantin Bruce Development, has riled neighbors, prompted a lawsuit from the Willow Lake homeowner's association and left some upset with their parish councilman for what they see as a lack of action.
The dispute is part of a larger debate over toughening building rules to prevent future flooding. Ascension recently implemented a nine-month moratorium on new development in the parish.
The 92-home Oak Grove project is near the intersection of La. 73 and La. 42. In March 2018, parish government allowed Dantin Bruce to create a drainage design that allows all of Oak Grove Townhomes' rainfall runoff to wind up in the Willow Lake neighborhood's two private lakes, existing bodies of water which were repurposed years earlier to hold rain runoff to prevent floods.
Parish Councilman Aaron Lawler and other parish officials brokered the arrangement.
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Since 2019, residents from Willow Lake have complained to the Parish Council and state Department of Environmental Quality that silt from the townhomes' construction was running off into their lakes, making one of them too shallow and causing long-term damage that will be costly to repair.
Willow Lake residents appeared the last two months in council and drainage hearings to highlight their problems, supporting the new construction moratorium and opposing the removal of the parish president as drainage chief.
The residents have shown parish and state officials photos from the ground and air that show light brown water flowing from the Oak Grove Townhomes site into the first of the two Willow Lake neighborhood lakes.
The problems around Oak Grove Townhomes and Willow Lake — and questions over who should fix them — highlight the continuing long-term debate over the role of privately maintained drainage ponds in Ascension's anti-flooding strategy.
The ponds are supposed to hold and slow down the extra runoff created by new roofs, roads and sidewalks. They also account for the flood impact of new homes being elevated on several feet of dirt.
But the parish leaves most of the pond's future maintenance -- despite their critical role in drainage -- to often ill-equipped homeowner's associations.
"You know, we're a bunch of people who own houses," said Dennis Stevens, one of the Willow Lake association's leaders, who had a career in accounting. "We're not in the drainage and construction business."
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The storm water rules that DEQ has accused Dantin Bruce of violating require hay bales, silt fences and other measures to keep dirt and other pollutants from escaping an active construction site and polluting the surrounding watershed, particularly when it rains.
In May 2019, Dantin Bruce paid an expedited, $1,000 fine to the DEQ to settle past storm water violations at Oak Grove Townhomes that affected Willow Lake, agency records show.
Those violations also prompted a 24-hour stop work order from parish government to make corrections, parish officials said. Among the violations, DEQ inspectors found that Dantin Bruce was pumping sediment-laden water into the Willow Lake pond.
Late last month, DEQ inspectors completed and made public a report on a series of subsequent inspections from mid-2020, prompted by complaining residents. The inspectors also referred Dantin Bruce to DEQ's Enforcement Division over the violations found in May, July and August of last year.
Among the alleged violations, the inspectors found controls around drains were old and no longer as effective as they should be, if at all.
"Silt fences placed around box drains were also weathered and not adequately preventing dirt from entering the storm drains, which drain to Willow Lake," a DEQ inspector wrote after a May 7, 2020, visit to the site.
The inspectors also found the construction site had been allowing rainfall runoff to flow into Oak Grove Townhomes' detention pond and then into Willow Lake's ponds for eight months in 2019 and 2020 without a renewed discharge permit.
Inspectors also cited Dantin Bruce over allegations the company continued to make the storm water violations that had been the subject of the 2019 settlement and that the company promised had been fixed.
Greg Langley, spokesman for DEQ, said Friday the Enforcement Division must now decide what action to take against Dantin Bruce.
Ross Bruce, an owner of Dantin Bruce, was on vacation Friday and not available for comment, a company official said.
Lawler, the councilman, declined to comment, citing the Willow Lake litigation, which has named the parish as one of the defendants.
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In a statement Thursday, parish officials said Oak Grove Townhomes was allowed to drain into Willow Lake in the first place because the community's private lakes were the natural drainage for the 12-acre townhome property.
The lakes, which were pre-existing and repurposed when the neighborhood was built more than two decades ago, also receive runoff from other neighboring subdivisions. But as private lakes, the parish does not maintain them; the homeowner's association does.
During planning meetings for the townhomes, Bruce told the commission that his engineers determined Willow Lakes didn't have sufficient storm water storage capacity and had drainage problems because culverts connecting the neighborhood's two lakes were too small.
Bruce promised to put up $100,000 for the homeowner's association to improve the culverts and lower a low-water dam, or weir, that controls the Willow Lake lake levels.
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Willow Lake residents, several of whom are now upset with the developer and Lawler, supported the deal at the time, including Stevens. It resurrected the townhome project, which had been initially denied by the parish Planning Commission but was appealed.
But the deal left unclear how the work would be accomplished. Clouding that question is whether the dam and culverts are public or owned by Willow Lake and what role parish government can play in the job, if any.
At the time, the claim was that the weir and culverts were private, but Stevens and other residents now contend the infrastructure is public.
Nearly three years later, the $100,000 has been set aside, which allowed home construction to start in late 2019. But the drainage work hasn't started and has become a subject of the Willow Lake lawsuit against parish government, Dantin Bruce and Oak Grove Townhomes.
The Willow Lake suit, filed in April in Ascension, accuses parish government of allowing faulty drainage and detention pond design at Oak Grove Townhomes and poor construction oversight that has eased the path for the silt into Willow Lake.
The suit also accuses Dantin Bruce of refusing to make corrections to Oak Grove Townhomes' drainage system without first being excused from liability for the existing silt damage in Willow Lake.
The suit claims the neighborhood may have to aerate, dredge and take other measures to account for the silt damage.
In a court response last month, parish government denied the suit's allegations. Dantin Bruce hadn't responded by Friday.