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Homes in the Dutchtown Meadows subdivision, left, off Cornerview Road stand Monday, April 15, 2019, several feet higher than the shed and surrounding land on the left. The neighborhood was built up on dirt fill to protect against flooding. The ditch dividing the two sides is meant to capture runoff from the higher land.

GONZALES — In a rare move, the Ascension Parish Council agreed Thursday to hire its own engineering representative to vet a possible compromise on limiting the use of dirt to elevate homes as a handful of members also aired their support for a short-term building moratorium while that work is underway.

The step to hire the firm comes as a special administrative committee with five council members on it met for the first time on Wednesday, in secret, to review a possible compromise floodplain management ordinance.

Late last month, Parish President Kenny Matassa vetoed an earlier version the council had adopted that drew opposition from builders and the administration over limits on fill and higher elevation requirements, as well as implementation conflicts they and Matassa saw in the new rules.

The fill ordinance has a critical effect on the homebuilding and construction industry — as well as, critics say, on flooding impacts on existing homes — in a parish where more than 70 percent of the land is inside the highest risk flood zone for insurance purposes and where new structures often need elevation to mitigate against that risk. 

Matassa impaneled the committee, which includes him, his staffers and one council member short of the six-person quorum that would require its meetings to be open to the public, to retool the proposed ordinance.

His veto of the earlier version of the floodplain management proposal survived an attempted override earlier this month by one council vote. 

Councilwoman Teri Casso, the chairwoman, said Thursday that she and other council member felt having an engineering representative with local knowledge could help the council work productively with the administration and the various stakeholders toward finding a consensus. 

She specifically identified Kimberly Koehl, an engineer with the Gonzales-based firm GSA Consulting Engineers, as the representative she wants for the professional contract, which is expected to cost no more than $30,000. That total is less than the $50,000-threshold that requires seeking written proposals.

Casso, who is on Matassa's committee, said she has worked well with Koehl before and has seen her deal with a difficult drainage problem in the Bluff Swamp area near Dutchtown, which is inside the councilwoman's district.

"I like Kimberly very much, and it's not all about personal relationship. It's about when she is in a room with a group of people who do not share the same feelings, she's very, very good, at maintaining first order and, secondly, staying on track and coming out of that room with consensus," Casso said. 

Koehl is also the point person for the parish drainage district's Laurel Ridge Levee project in St. Amant, which has encountered opposition from Livingston Parish.

GSA, a Gonzales firm that does plenty of work in Ascension, won't be paid out of the general fund or other regular funds over which the administration has tighter oversight; instead, the payment will come from the Parish Council's own $58,000 professional services budget.

The no-bid contract drew no opposition but some questions about its necessity and about the closed-door nature of the administrative committee's work, not only from the public but also from other council members.

Councilman Benny Johnson, who also sits on the committee, said the first meeting was productive and that it appeared to him the administration had already developed answers to some of the conflicts the administration had found in the earlier fill proposal.

But Casso said that while she agreed the first meeting was productive, a consensus had not been reached and she wants to be sure both sides are happy with the final product.

Councilman Daniel "Doc" Satterlee, a proponent of the prior ordinance who is not on the administrative committee, shared his discomfort with the closed-door nature of the meetings as the council tries to gain the trust of the public but he agreed that a third-party engineer might offer some safeguard.

"The closed stuff is not a way to get the trust of the people," Debra Vickers, a Prairieville resident who spoke about the contract, added later. "Already (they're) seeing it as suspicious, very suspicious."

Any product from the administrative committee would have to brought before the public and go through numerous public hearings before the Parish Council.

While the council took no action on a not-fully-defined building moratorium that would be tied to the floodplain ordinance's development, several members expressed support for a short-term ban that could last weeks as a way to force the council and administration to act on the floodplain ordinance. 

But a builder told the council that any halt in home construction could set back business activity well after the moratorium ends by steering construction to other parishes in the interim.

"Once they set up shop elsewhere, it's difficult to entice them back," homebuilder Nathan Spicer said.

Council members pointed out, however, that parish staff told them earlier this month that Ascension already has about 3,000 home lots ready for construction or with the needed approvals to be in the development pipeline. The total represents a three-year supply.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.