DONALDSONVILLE — Revisions to a major land use ordinance that could affect how thousands of Ascension Parish landowners use their property remained a work in progress and one firmly behind closed doors Thursday.
Engineers working for parish government were expected to deliver a presentation about a proposed ordinance to regulate how dirt fill is used to raise homes in low-lying Ascension.
The topic of fill has, at times, riven the parish since the August 2016 flood. Some residents have charged that its use to raise new housing and businesses has worsened flooding for older, lower homes. Builders say such claims fly in the face of sound engineering because the impact of the dirt is mitigated with water-holding detention ponds and other measures.
But, the engineers with GSA Consulting Engineers told the Parish Council on Thursday that though a proposed ordinance is under development, they would prefer to meet with individual council members one-on-one in private instead of broadly releasing a draft.
"We would like schedule meetings with you before we get the final copy to make sure that if you have any revisions you would like to make to the current document, you can voice them with us, and we'll revise it," said Kimberly Koehl, an engineer with GSA Consulting Engineers.
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The ordinance is under development while the parish is under a moratorium on the use of fill inside the lowest-lying parts of the parish — the 100-year flood plain, which covers more than 70% of the parish. Council members have given themselves a tight deadline to adopt the new law and end the moratorium.
Public opposition to the parish's fill practices has led to calls for hard limits on the use of dirt.
That would mean some homes and businesses in the lowest parts of Ascension could need to be built on piers and chain-walls or in combination with some dirt fill. That would represent a major shift from how the parish has developed in recent decades and one builders say would be too costly.
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The one-on-one meetings would happen so the ordinance draft could be finished before the council is expected to introduce it on Aug. 15 and make it public, the first part of a two-step process for adoption. A final vote could happen by Sept. 5, ending the moratorium.
Koehl said her firm would prefer the one-on-one meetings so that multiple drafts with partial revisions aren't circulating and causing confusion, but the closed-door meetings before introduction also could give the public less of a sense of what concerns council members or other interests might have had that helped shape its development.
Typically parish ordinance changes are routed through council committees, which meet in public, are televised and are streamed on the internet. In those open meetings, council members, interest groups and others can voice their opinions on proposals before any legal change heads to the full council.
Even in that process, some technical writing can be left to a handful of council members, parish lawyers or even individuals with interests to hash out in private, but those changes are brought back to committee.
The fill ordinance revision has been under development since mid-June entirely in secret. Parish President Kenny Matassa appointed a closed-door administrative committee to work on the law following his veto of one developed by the council and approved in mid-May.
That ordinance proposed fill limits, new elevation requirements and other changes that builders and Matassa said posed practical enforcement and implementation problems.
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He named five council members to the committee, one short of a quorum that would have forced the group to meet in public, publicize an agenda in advance and take minutes.
The committee has been meeting in private with selected council members, administrators and, occasionally, unnamed representatives of home builders, developers and other unspecified "stakeholders" about topics that, at this point, remain unclear.
Two council members who do not sit on that committee, Councilmen Bill Dawson and Daniel "Doc" Satterlee, pressed Koehl and Glenn Shaheen, president of GSA, about when they would get to see the draft and whether they could just get a copy without having to meet with the engineers.
Both men said they want time to review the document, which could take hours, before they met with anyone about their concerns.
Shaheen told Satterlee that he understood the council members' concerns and recognized that they, as the elected representatives of the public, are "important," but it is also important that the "stakeholders," whom Shaheen did not name, get to weigh in on what the council members suggested.
"We wanted to make sure that we're having direct dialogue with all the various stakeholders and that this document doesn't get to circulate in the community before the primary stakeholders had an opportunity to provide their input, their scrutiny and had an opportunity to understand and feel comfortable with the ordinance," Shaheen said.
The parish is paying GSA to facilitate revision of the fill ordinance, which could ultimately become a parish document and a public law.
Shaheen and Koehl promised to get the council versions of the proposal well before the Aug. 15 introduction date.
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In a later interview, Koehl said the issues being discussed by the committee were mainly technical matters with the language of ordinance and making sure any changes don't conflict with other parts of parish law.
Council Chair Teri Casso, who sits on the revision committee, said the public would have the same time to see and comment on the proposed ordinance as it has other ordinances brought to the council for adoption.