GONZALES — Ascension Parish President Clint Cointment wants parish government to end its longstanding practice of having home developers hire their own firms to conduct traffic impact analyses.

The analyses are an important piece of the new development review process, often determining if new neighborhoods of several dozen to a few hundred homes must add improvements to local roads or even wait on home sales until more significant regional arteries are improved.

In a forceful commentary on the state of traffic review for new housing, Cointment said the parish should instead hire its own third-party firms to do the traffic studies because he distrusted the outcome of work that developers pay for directly.

"These people are doing the traffic analysis work for the developer, and they're going to finagle and they're going to do everything they possibly can to get those numbers to fit the right criteria for it to meet our development code, and I think that's wrong," Cointment said.

He has said his administration would roll out the changes in the coming months. 

The first-term parish leader's comments about traffic studies came at last week's Parish Council meeting during a round of questioning from Councilman Aaron Lawler revolving around Cointment's concerns over the former Antebellum Pointe subdivision proposed off La. 73 in Prairieville.

At the time of Lawler's questions Feb. 18, the council, Cointment and members of his administration were about 40 minutes away from going into a closed-door session to discuss a lawsuit that the landowners behind the subdivision, now named Delaune Estates, brought against the parish in September in state court in Gonzales.

The Delaune family is seeking $7 million over the denials, which the family claims it lost after a proposed sale of the property was stymied.

The Planning Commission narrowly rejected and the Parish Council failed to overturn the commission's denial of the subdivision near White Road last year. Traffic impacts on intersections along La. 73 — some of which were already substandard — and around the congested La. 73/Interstate 10 interchange figured heavily in the discussions at the time.

The denials came as some officials wanted to see the effect of the then-unfinished widening of I-10. The state has since finished the $72 million project, which widened I-10 to three lanes in each direction from the Prairieville exit to the northwest.

In a Facebook post on his parish president page a day before the council meeting last week, Cointment had said that the closed-door session on the lawsuit had been added to the Feb. 18 council agenda without his knowledge. He said he had to consult with three officials in or working for his own administration to learn what the council would be discussing.

"It is my belief that Delaune Estates (formerly known as Antebellum Pointe subdivision) will be considered for approval by the council in the guise of settling the lawsuit mentioned above," Cointment wrote.

Cointment also restated his opposition to the 237-home project, as he did in March and July 2020, over its traffic impacts.

The Delaunes have named the Parish Council, the Planning Commission and parish government as defendants but also Cointment as an individual, claiming he improperly interfered in the council's deliberations over the project in July.

After a lengthy closed-door session that lasted more than an hour on Feb. 18 that Cointment attended, the council emerged to take no action with no explanation.

Before that session began, however, Lawler had asked Cointment: under what criteria does he decide to publicly oppose some home projects, like Antebellum Pointe, but choose to support others, like Hidden Lakes in the Lake/Galvez area?

Cointment said he bases that decision on the parish rules and whether the facts surrounding a new neighborhood present a health, safety and welfare concern.

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He added that, in the case of Antebellum Pointe and some others, the developers' traffic engineers resubmitted traffic data multiple times, after initial internal denials, until the figures met parish benchmarks. 

Cointment said he believes that practice needs to stop. He said the work should be done by a third party who would take the builder's financial interests out of the decision.

Even though the studies are paid for directly by developers currently, the analyses are done by licensed engineers and are stamped, meaning any deliberate falsification could result in professional consequences for that engineer.

In the Facebook post, Cointment wrote that unnamed "proponents" were incorrectly claiming that Delaune Estates had rectified its traffic worries, in part, with state traffic signal timing changes.

But Cointment claimed that state highway officials would not alter the timing of lights on La. 73 at White Road and farther south to aid traffic flow out of the proposed subdivision if those changes also hindered flow on an already congested stretch of La. 73.

"DOTD has stated, unequivocally, it would NOT make any adjustments which would negatively affect traffic on (La.) 73 in favor of a proposed subdivision," Cointment wrote.

On Monday, a spokesman for DOTD did not directly address Cointment's claims about the agency but did say that traffic signal timing is a kind of mitigation technique that may work for some developments. Delaune Estates has not requested a permit to make those kinds of changes on La. 73, however.

"Once the permit application is received and the traffic impact study has been reviewed, DOTD will determine what mitigation is required prior to the issuance of any permits," said Rodney Mallett, the agency spokesman.

As Ascension has grown and traffic problems have mounted through the years, the traffic analyses have been a recurring concern and led to a tightening of the traffic impact policy in 2018.

Those changes, which Lawler helped develop, have since held up some new neighborhoods until road improvements happened. They have also placed more emphasis on the underlying conclusions from new development traffic studies.

In a later interview, Lawler said he was open to Cointment's idea. He said he would like to have the parish analyze the actual traffic impact of several new neighborhoods built since the new policy was adopted against the original traffic studies.

He said the retrospective analysis might show by how much the traffic studies are misjudging impact or even show they are accurate.

A full picture hasn't been provided yet about how the parish would pay for the third-party analyses. Cointment said he would still have developers foot the bill but the parish would pick the firm. That company would be barred from doing other work with Ascension.

Lawler suggested the parish develop a list of firms and randomly assign one of them to each new proposal.

After the closed session late Thursday on the Delaune Estates lawsuit, several council members and Cointment declined to discuss what had happened or if a settlement had been on the table, saying they were barred from revealing their discussions.

On Friday, a plaintiff's attorney representing landowner William Delaune Jr. and others suing the parish did not return a call for comment.

Under state open meetings law, local governments can meet in closed session, often called "executive session," to discuss pending litigation.

On Friday, records showed the suit remained pending.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.