PRAIRIEVILLE — Fast-growing but low-lying Ascension Parish's endless struggle to maintain clean water and improve drainage showed itself on several fronts this week, as the parish grappled with policing runoff from new home construction and took a step toward compromise over limits on using dirt to raise homes.
- On Monday, Parish Council members failed in a bid to block a parish contract to Quality Engineering, a firm associated with the Brookstone subdivision and other new home projects that have also had sediment control and drainage problems.
- On Tuesday, builder Dantin Bruce Development was ordered to stop work for a day due to a series of violations tied to controlling sediment runoff from raw earth at the Praireville-area construction site for Oak Grove Townhomes.
- On Thursday, under the threat of Parish Council-imposed building moratorium, Parish President Kenny Matassa formed a committee to develop new rules on using dirt fill to raise homes after he vetoed another proposal last month.
The six-month moratorium recommendation came Monday from the East Ascension drainage board, which is made up of council members. The proposed moratorium was a response to the Parish Council's failure to override Matassa's recent veto of tighter rules on the use of fill. Matassa formed the fill committee three days later.
“We all agree we have to do something, but it must be the right thing,” Matassa said in a statement. “My administration will work with the Council to find the best possible solution for all of the people.”
Critics of the current fill rules say they allow developers to push floodwater on older, lower homes, although an array of builders and engineers dispute that. The full council must still act on the moratorium to make it law.
The new fill committee is composed of Matassa, Council Chairwoman Teri Casso; top parish administrators and planners and a legal adviser; four other council members; and the parish's primary development review consultant.
Meanwhile, Ascension officials have been trying to get back into the good graces of federal regulators over the parish stormwater program, another drainage-related matter.
Unlike the fill rules, which center around the long-term drainage impacts from finished construction, the stormwater rules that Dantin Bruce Development ran afoul of are focused on the water quality of rainfall runoff during construction. The program is intended to ensure builders prevent sediment runoff from clogging roads and ditches and impairing water quality in the parish's already troubled waterways.
In February, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cited the parish for violating the Clean Water Act and issued an administrative order, finding the parish has had weak enforcement. The parish has hired a new stormwater program director and improved its inspection efforts, officials said.
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Since then, though, the neighbors of some new construction sites in Prairieville, including those next to Oak Grove Townhomes and the Brookstone subdivision, have aired stormwater-related complaints.
But Martin McConnell, a parish government spokesman, said the order against Dantin-Bruce and Oak Grove Townhomes and a citation the parish has also issued against Brookstone's developer, America Homeland, show Ascension's renewed efforts are having an impact.
At Oak Grove Townhomes, parish officials issued the stop work order on Tuesday to Dantin Bruce over violations that had persisted at least since a May 7 inspection of the 92-unit project.
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The parish order says contractors were pumping sediment-laden water from the work site onto an adjacent property, "causing adverse environmental impacts" to the site, but the order does not specify where the water went.
Parish Councilman Aaron Lawler, who represents the area, said the residents of next-door Willow Lake subdivision complained to him and other parish officials that the developer was pumping the sediment-laden water directly into one of their subdivision's ponds.
Oak Grove Townhomes' 12.2-acre site has a waterside bank along one of the Willow Lake ponds. On Thursday, the water in the pond nearest the construction site was a light chocolate color and filled with floating debris, as turtles poked their noses out of the water. The squeaks and rumbles of earth-moving equipment could be heard in the background.
The parish order also says the builders failed to set up silt fences or had deficient ones. They are designed to keep dirt and other material from running off into roads and ditches.
McConnell said the stop-work order gave Dantin Bruce Development 24 hours to make corrections. The builders did them in short order and the parish allowed work to resume Wednesday, he said.
"We said, 'Look, figure it out,' and they fixed it. They did what they were required to or ordered to do actually," McConnell said.
He said that because Dantin Bruce rectified the problems in a timely manner, the company won't be fined.
In a statement, the developer acknowledged it received the stop work order "for non-compliance relative to storm water and silt fencing issues," but noted the parish rescinded the order 24 hours later.
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Yet, the revelation of the EPA order and that, despite it, storm water failures have persisted at construction sites in Prairieville led to some political pushback earlier this week against Quality Engineering, a company associated with other projects.
In a meeting of the East Ascension drainage board Monday, Lawler and Councilmen Bill Dawson and Daniel "Doc" Satterlee, who sit on the board, opposed granting Quality Engineering a parish contract worth up to $30,000 to oversee drainage improvements in the Wallace Acres subdivision.
Each man cited problems with stormwater controls and other drainage matters in neighborhood developments under the company's purview, including Brookstone. Residents next to that project have complained that silty water flooded their back yards after recent heavy rains.
“I really question if we go through with this contract tonight, are we having the fox guarding the hen house,” said Satterlee, a longtime critic of Quality Engineering and its close ties to the parish administration.
But parish officials told the drainage board that they wanted Quality Engineering to oversee construction because the company had designed the $1 million in drainage improvements for Wallace Acres. The company was the only bidder for the contract, which was approved 7-3.
Deric Murphy, a top official at Quality Engineering, said his company has been trying to address concerns at Brookstone and will eventually improve drainage for the entire area once work is finished.