A fierce battle this week over approving new neighborhoods in Ascension Parish illustrated the political vise that is tightening around parish leaders over increasingly common floods and traffic jams.
On one side, many residents are furiously pressuring them to crack down on new construction, which they say is worsening both problems.
"We, the people of Ascension Parish, are fed up," Sonny Edwards, a resident leading one of the efforts to recall parish council members over the issue, told the planning commission in a tense public meeting this week. "This is what the people of Ascension elected the (Parish) Council to do and to look out for the people of this parish. It's not being done.“
But on the other side, they face criticism and even legal threats from developers — some whom are from longtime Ascension Parish families — who say the parish is arbitrarily denying their projects for political reasons.
Matt Pryor, the longtime parish Planning Commission chairman, has said often that the commission must simply interpret the law and rely on the engineering analysis provided by the developer and reviewed by parish engineers.
"We're appointed by the (Parish) Council to follow the law on what they say the public health, safety and welfare is. That's their job to do that," he said. "They pass the law. If we don't follow the law, then we're as illegal as anything lese. We're bound to follow the law."
The tension came to a head Wednesday when the council approved plans to build several new neighborhoods — just hours before a nine-month moratorium on approving such neighborhoods, implemented because of recent flooding, went into effect.
Most controversial was the approval of Delaune Estates, a proposed 237-home development off of La. 73 that has raised major concerns about traffic. The council also approved a deal with the already approved Windemere Crossing neighborhood, revising it to have only one exit in exchange for widening Cannon Road at the developer’s expense. And the commission also authorized home construction in two other, previously approved neighborhoods.
All told, the approvals will bring 340 new lots to the Ascension housing market and allow construction on 181 already-approved lots.
The votes came even as residents implored, chastised and mocked commission members for more than three hours. Campaigns are underway to recall as many as six members of the Parish Council, who appoint the planning commission members.
Lisa LeBouef, 63, a Dutchtown native who lives where she grew up, said neither she nor other residents have the money to hire an engineering firm to challenge the developers' analyses.
"I mean, how many people have to suffer and why is this being pushed through at the last minute?" she said. "It just seems ... it seems wrong to me. It seems disingenuous. It seems wrong to me."
Just following the rules?
The Delaune Estates vote was the most controversial. The Planning Commission previously rejected the project, citing concerns about the number of cars it would add to already-congested intersections along La. 73. The Parish Council failed to overturn the decision on appeal in July 2020.
The developers filed a $7 million lawsuit because of that rejection, but Wednesday’s approval means the suit will be dismissed.
When the first proposal was rejected, traffic studies had to estimate the benefits of a wider Interstate 10 and added impact of a new school and hospital in the area, because those projects had not been completed yet. The Delaune family recently commissioned a new study that looked at the actual traffic impacts of those changes now that they are finished.
The Delauene's attorney, Jeffrey Schoen, contended it found that the new neighborhood would meet the parish’s traffic rules. That meant the Delaunes had met their obligations and neighborhood should be approved, he argued.
But some residents questioned the validity of the new study because it was conducted in November, when Louisiana still had some COVID-related restrictions in place. Critics say that drastically reduced traffic, particularly among local schools.
The parish engineer who reviews subdivision plans told the commission that it had required the Delaune Estates study to adjust all its traffic estimates upward by 10% to account for the pandemic. But that wasn’t enough for some residents.
Resident Denise Drago passed out a memo from the state Department of Transportation and Development saying it would not accept traffic studies conducted during the pandemic.
"The state of Louisiana DOTD is not accepting traffic study analysis because of the COVID pandemic,” she said. “Why would Ascension Parish accept them?"
Some commission members wanted to delay a vote on the project until a traffic study could be conducted post-COVID -- a step the parish's own engineer said was not unreasonable. But that would mean the project would have to wait until the nine-month moratorium was over.
The development was approved on a 3-2 vote. Commissioners Matt Pryor, Ken Firmin and Julio Dumas voted to approve; Aaron Chaisson and Todd Varnado were opposed.
The vote was the same on a deal with the new Windermere Crossing neighborhood. Originally approved with two exits, one on Cannon Road and one on Roddy Road, there will now only be an exit on Cannon Road. But, in exchange, the developer will spend more than $750,000 to widen Cannon Road to 20-feet, which the developer expects should alleviate traffic.
The project’s engineer promised the road widening would be completed before homes are built.
Past proposals to widen Cannon Road have faced opposition from residents whose homes are already close to the street. Some aired similar concerns Wednesday.