GONZALES — A state district judge says that, for the time being, Ascension Parish cannot ban the use of dirt to raise homes and businesses while it develops new rules on fill limits.
The order came after development companies with owners who have long-standing ties to parish government alleged in a lawsuit that the resolution calling for the ban violates the home rule charter.
The suit charges the resolution, which the Parish Council adopted July 18, has improperly been given the force of law and illegally circumvents the parish's existing fill ordinance.
The ruling comes amid an already contentious effort to revamp the parish's rules on piling up dirt to raise homes so property owners can meet federal and parish elevation requirements in low-lying parts of Ascension.
Work on the new ordinance has been subject to extensive delays, including the parish president's veto in late May after one council revamp had been adopted and, more recently, law-writing on a new version that has happened in secret.
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According to the lawsuit, PS Development LP and SLC Development of Ascension LLC were trying to develop six lots on Wirth Evans Road in the Galvez area, but parish government prevented the companies from putting in 3 feet of dirt fill on the properties nearly a week after the temporary ban was adopted.
The existing fill ordinance limits smaller lots to no more than 3 feet of dirt fill. The developers wanted to bring in dirt to comply with elevation requirements.
Judge Jessie LeBlanc of the 23rd Judicial District Court issued the temporary order without input from the parish and found doing so was necessary to avoid "immediate and irreparable harm" to the developers.
"All my client wants to do is continue following the ordinance that is in effect right now," Kim Landry, the plaintiffs' attorney, said Friday.
Two of the primary owners of the Gonzales companies named as plaintiffs in the suit are Suzanna Beiriger and her husband, former Parish Councilman Jared Beiriger, online state business records say.
Both are developers. Jared Beiriger is also an owner of Quality Engineering. The company is not a party to the suit, but does extensive work for local builders and parish government.
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In LeBlanc's order filed late Wednesday afternoon, she set a hearing for 10 a.m. next Friday on whether institute a more extensive halt on the fill moratorium.
Filed July 26 in Gonzales, the suit names Parish President Kenny Matassa as the defendant. The parish administration could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.
Councilman Travis Turner, who sponsored the temporary fill ban resolution, said an ordinance wasn't necessary because the resolution isn't stopping developers from building. They just have to use piers or other means to elevate their homes or wait until the new ordinance is finished, he said.
He also claimed that a temporary restraining order wasn't necessary but a lawsuit could have simply been filed to block the moratorium. He charged the short-term order was about the developers wanting to get dirt in on their land before the restraining order is lifted or a new fill ordinance is adopted.
Landry said to her knowledge, the developers have not put in fill on the properties and disputed Turner's take on the legal force of a resolution. She noted that the parish's own attorney had advised the council previously that the changes to an ordinance must happen through amendment, not a resolution.
"So they knew what they had to do," Landry said.
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The suit alleges Matassa vetoed an earlier version of a new fill ordinance in late May so the parish could finish bringing in fill for a new courthouse planned along East Worthey Road. The fill work at the courthouse was finished a few days before the moratorium was adopted, the suit charges.
"The fill for the new courthouse appears to exceed 36 inches (3 feet)," the suit alleges.
The courthouse is being built at the behest of the judges in the 23rd JDC, including LeBlanc, the parish clerk of court and sheriff's office.
Last year, Parish Councilman Dempsey Lambert said that a then-proposed fill ordinance wasn't ready to move forward because of concerns about how it could affect the use of fill for the courthouse.
But Turner called the suit's allegations disingenuous because by the time of Matassa's veto, much less when the subsequent fill moratorium was adopted, dirt for the courthouse had already been approved.
Beiriger's Quality Engineering did the hydrological analysis of the new courthouse project and of the impact that dirt fill would have on the watershed surrounding it.
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