GONZALES — A key policy making committee of the Ascension Parish Council signaled Monday that it's ready to support limits on the use of dirt to raise homes and other drainage recommendations that have been stalled for eight months.
If adopted, the changes could mean that new homes and business in Ascension's lowest-lying areas — where federally backed floodplain rules require significant elevation — would have to be built likely on a combination of fill dirt as well as pier and beam, chain wall or other construction methods because dirt alone won't be enough to meet elevation requirements.
The council's committee on strategic planning directed the parish administration and its consultant, HNTB, on Monday night to have the dirt and other recommendations before the body next month so the full council can begin considering the necessary ordinance changes on March 21.
In May, HNTB proposed limiting the use of dirt, or fill, for homes and other structures to 3 feet deep as part of an analysis of Ascension's drainage rules. Parish government and the East Ascension drainage board, which is made up of parish council members, had hired HNTB to do the job in response to the devastating August 2016 flood that inundated nearly 6,200 homes in the parish.
But the proposal has stalled at the drainage board amid concerns that the board's chairman, Councilman Dempsey Lambert, raised about its impact.
In the meantime, with 2019 an election year and prospective candidates lining up against parish council members, pressure has built to act on HNTB's recommendations and tighten drainage rules.
Councilman Aaron Lawler, who pressed for a moratorium on some uses of fill in mid-2017 before HNTB was hired to come up with fill recommendations, proposed a six-month moratorium on fill again this month.
The moratorium would apply to development of large neighborhoods and to smaller "one-off" land divisions inside the 100-year floodplain until the stalled HNTB recommendations were in a form the council could consider.
Instead of proposing the moratorium, though, the committee voted unanimously Monday to direct the administration and HNTB to get something before it soon.
Melissa Kennedy, HNTB's lead project engineer on the Ascension rules, said the recommendations could be before the council in ordinance form within a month.
"So basically, if you've got it written down, within a month you can get it to us. I don't know. Tell me if I'm right or wrong," Councilman Randy Clouatre asked Kennedy.
"You're right," Kennedy told Clouatre.
The committee's move to direct that the recommendations move forward came as parish officials acknowledged that additional work being done by LSU on Ascension's fill practices wasn't expected to provide a lot of new fine detail.
Jerome Fournier, the parish planning director, said LSU officials recently told him it wasn't their intention to supersede what HNTB has already done.
Lambert, the drainage chairman, has said previously he was waiting to act on the HNTB recommendations until he could see what LSU found through its studies. However, that work isn't expected to be finished until sometime in May.
But what HNTB has recommended isn't the deep analysis and site specific look at fill use and other development practices that former East Ascension drainage and Public Works Director Bill Roux once promised in the months after the August 2016 flood.
When Kennedy, the HNTB engineer, first presented the recommendations in May, she described them as interim steps to try to make quick changes and consolidate conflicts in the parish ordinance and other rules.
In Ascension, some types of development are already limited to 3 feet of fill: lots smaller than a half-acre.
But bigger lots and large neighborhoods and commercial developments can add more than 3 feet of dirt, although they are required to mitigate the impact on the floodplain with detention ponds or other measures. Under HNTB's recommendations, even projects that mitigate fill use will be limited to no more than 3 feet of dirt.
Kennedy told the committee Monday that a deeper analysis of the parish's several drainage basins, including identifying where floodways are located, would take 18 months and another $2 million.
Floodways are especially vulnerable areas inside floodplains that are part of the primary water course of a river or bayou and are generally heavily restricted from most kinds of development. Most parts of Ascension don't have the floodways identified, parish officials acknowledged Monday.
Lawler, who doesn't sit on the committee, argued for the moratorium Monday, noting that there was a chance someone could end up building in an area later identified as a floodway. Some of the 2019 council election hopefuls also showed up before the committee Monday to argue on behalf of imposing a moratorium.
Deric Murphy, an engineering representative for several developers in Ascension and other parishes, said he, other engineers and parish officials developed fill and other drainage rules several years ago. He suggested they were already fairly restrictive.