GONZALES — Ascension Parish government is targeting messy property owners with lawsuits aimed at forcing them to clean up.
The lawsuits, which accuse owners of zoning violations, include as evidence photographs taken in Gonzales, Prairieville and St. Amant. They show cars scattered around yards in various states of repair, multiple rental properties on a single-family residential site and large gas storage tanks on residential land.
Promised in mid-February, the suits are part of a broader push to clean up Ascension, officials said.
Parish President Kenny Matassa said the parish has also restored a yearly hazardous waste collection day and expanded recycling to five days per week at the parish Department of Public Works.
In addition, Sheriff Jeff Wiley will be using an inmate crew to pick up trash on the parish's major highway after a pilot effort on a section of Airline Highway last month.
“We now have a three-pronged strategy to fight litter and blight in Ascension Parish," Matassa said in a prepared statement. "We’ve got a fast-growing and fast-moving parish, and I want us to be a parish that takes pride in our property and community.”
The parish filed the eight lawsuits Tuesday in Ascension Parish Court, a misdemeanor and small claims court in Gonzales, and plans to file about a dozen lawsuits in all, officials said.
The suits seek a court order to force the landowners to clean up their properties and comply with zoning laws. The parish has asked Judge Marilyn Lambert to order the landowners to court 1 p.m. July 10 to show why she shouldn't order them to clean up.
The homeowners who are the subjects of the lawsuits have been the source of complaints and have been investigated by zoning officials but have not fixed the situation, according to Matassa.
“Property ownership brings with it rights and responsibilities, including the responsibility for upkeep,” Matassa said in February. “The property owners in these lawsuits have neglected the law, refused to correct problems and have become a nuisance to their neighbors and community.”
Attempts this week to reach all of the property owners targeted in the lawsuits for a response were only partly successful. Some didn't return calls or messages left at their homes or with family members.
One of those being sued disputed that he still owns the home in Prairieville that is the subject of complaints. Land and assessor records appeared to show that he no longer did.
Two other people, who both live on dead-end Barden Road north of Gonzales, were informed of the suits by The Advocate. They took issue with what they saw as the Matassa administration singling them out for no good reason.
Levi Gautreaux, 20, rents from his mother and lives in a house next to a business on La. 44. Gautreaux has cars and trucks, bare engine blocks and transmissions and other odd equipment in his front yard.
The cars are on his small acreage in one of Ascension's light commercial zones. He likes to work on classic cars as a hobby, not a business, and takes issue with the parish view that his cars amount to unpermitted "bulk" or automotive storage that violates the zoning set for the property.
"This is no different than if somebody, like, has a garden in their yard or has a bass boat they like. It's no different. It's just that I have a few classic cars. A classic car isn’t junk. It's not an eyesore," Gautreaux said.
He added that engine blocks and transmissions by his front porch were behind one of his cars and not visible from the road.
Gautreaux said the parish filed the suit against his mother, who actually owns the home but resides in Livingston Parish.
Glenn Daigle, 58, who lives a few houses down from Gautreaux, had even more vehicles on his property. From what was visbile from the road last week, there were 17 cars, a boat, a delivery truck, two pickup trucks and a mini-frontloader on his acreage.
Daigle, who said he has done some cleanup of his yard already, said he does repair work on cars and then sells them. He contended he has lived in the area for more than 22 years without any problems from the parish and was close enough to La. 44 to have a zoning that would allow his activities.
He questioned why he was being hassled about his property when all he is trying to do is work and make a living.
" I'm working to pay my light bill, put food on my table, and they worried about me because I think I got one neighbor bitching about this, or whatever, because he's trying to sell his house," Daigle said.
While the parish's suits may be part of an administration drive to improve Ascension's aesthetics, beauty remains very much in the eye of the beholder.
In the front yard of Gautreaux's home, amid the cars and engines, he's converted a car suspension spring and section of metal tubing into the vertical base for a bird bath.
The bath itself, which sits on top of the homemade base, was created from hammering into shape the galvanized metal back panel of an old washing machine, Gautreaux said.
He said that, to him, working with cars is art.
"I don't understand why people are coming against me," Gautreaux said.
Kyle Gautreau, a parish spokesman, said the "particulars of each case will be heard and argued in court."