GONZALES — Ascension Parish's former planning director accused his old department of failing to ensure neighborhood developers followed 2013 subdivision construction rules designed to make more pedestrian friendly and green communities and called for an accounting of those failures since the laws took effect.
Ricky Compton, whom outgoing Parish President Kenny Matassa pushed out of office in 2016 amid criticism from one of Matassa's campaign donors, focused his complaints over rules that require developers to plant hundreds of shade trees along streets and in mandatory neighborhood parks in newly built subdivisions.
Compton based his accusations on his experience with a new subdivision near his home in Ascension Parish. He said he watched it receive final approval earlier this year, although it failed to have any of the required trees planted and had repeated stormwater control problems that let dirt run off in "caramel-colored water" flowing into his ditch.
"I've watched this one subdivision near my house fail to follow the rules at every turn and fail to plant the trees that they promised they would plant, that the ordinance requires that they plant," Compton told the parish Planning Commission on Wednesday night. "How many more subdivisions haven't followed the rules? Because I'd be willing to bet it's not just this one."
He added that on Wednesday he drove around and found that only one of eight new subdivisions even planted the required trees and the trees in the neighborhood were smaller than the required size.
Compton, who served as planning director primarily under former Parish President Tommy Martinez, estimated that about 4,000 lots have been approved since 2015 that would have had to comply with the subdivision rules the council adopted in October 2013.
A key author and backer of the rules, Compton noted that they call for larger-sized and specific kinds of shade trees, not saplings and ornamental trees like crape myrtles. He said the rules, which also required sidewalks and small parks, were part of a trade off that also allowed builders to construct more homes per acre than in the past.
After Compton's comments and those from others complaining about parish enforcement, current Planning Director Jerome Fournier agreed with a request from Commission Chair Matt Pryor for an accounting of all subdivisions that have not complied with the requirements that come with final approval, including the tree requirements.
"All efforts should be made to enforce that to the 'T,'" Pryor said.
Fournier said he would try to have a report next month.
Commissioners also questioned what kind of authority the parish even had to enforce the parish rules, short of pursuing litigation, and also recommended the Parish Council consider new laws to give the rules more teeth.
Compton's comments reopened an on-again, off-again discussion about how parish government enforces its development rules, in particular, at the final phase of approval, known as the "final plat."
Final plat approval is important for builders because it means infrastructure and other basic construction steps in a subdivision have been finished and home construction can begin.
In years past, the commission could place contingencies on final plats, allowing the commission to approve final plats but withhold a key signature until final details for a project were finished.
Critics of the parish's growth policies decried this practice as a way to allow builders to rush through projects and successfully pushed for no contingencies on final plats. The intent was that builders would have to complete all the details before they appeared before the commission.
But the implication from Compton's accusations Wednesday is that projects have been getting through the commission process before they have fully complied with the development rules.
Eric Poche, a parish planner, told the commission that since the parish ended the requirement for developers to put up performance bonds, the planning department allows developers to put in trees in park spaces after water service is available in a neighborhood so the new trees can be watered.
New homes can't get a certificate of occupancy until the trees are planted in the park spaces, Poche said.
"Now I'm not going to say we catch every one of them and we can certainly be more diligent about making sure they adhere … to the code as it is written, but that's one reason that this particular subdivision that Mr. Compton is talking about is … possibly doesn't have the trees there," Poche said. "We do need to be more diligent."
Fournier added that the parish has been working to improve its enforcement of stormwater rules and urged the public to report any problems they see.
Compton did not identify the project that drew his scrutiny during the public meeting but said in a later interview it was the 39-home Cedar Springs neighborhood in the Galvez/Prairieville area off Norwood Road. An engineer for the project did not return a message for comment Thursday.
Parish documents show the Cedar Springs got its final inspection Jan. 29 before the commission approved the final plat the following month. Though the parish's engineering review agent listed a number of details the developer had to address, landscaping was not one, parish correspondence shows.
Compton said the subdivision near his home now has 12 houses under construction six months since its final plat was approved but the developer has planted only crape myrtles on the lots, not the larger shade trees that are required.