GONZALES — Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley said Friday he is skeptical his office has jurisdiction over a complaint about a claimed “quid pro quo” scheme alleged to involve two parish planning commissioners.
Houmas House owner Kevin Kelly has accused Commissioners Daniel Satterlee and Milton Clouatre Jr. of pressuring him to solicit parish councilmen to support abolition of a parish ordinance.
In exchange, Kelly alleges, the commissioners offered approval for a major new development at Houmas House that includes a restaurant, hotel and federally funded museum.
The project is now on hold, and Kelly has called the offer “blackmail” and “vote buying” in a letter to parish officials and an interview Thursday.
In a joint statement, Clouatre and Satterlee said they only told Kelly his project did not comply with the ordinance in question, called a planned unit development, or PUD, overlay.
“We advised Mr. Kelly of this problem and his allegations of blackmail are simply untrue,” the statement says.
“Parish zoning ordinances must be applied consistently to everyone, no special treatment. As commissioners, we do not make laws, we are only responsible for applying them.”
The PUD overlay spurs use of PUDs on large agricultural zoning tracts in Darrow, Burnside and elsewhere for projects of at least three acres in an effort, planning officials have said, to bring infrastructure.
PUDs are flexible projects that include homes, parks and commercial areas but are also lightning rods for controversy in Ascension over that flexibility and housing density.
Clouatre and Satterlee, relatively new council appointees to the commission, have been vocal critics of PUDs. Satterlee said he is also planning to challenge Council Chairman Pat Bell in the Oct. 22 primary election.
Sheriff Wiley said Kelly made the complaint July 14 and detectives investigated.
Wiley said they conducted interviews with Kelly and Parish Planning Director Ricky Compton on Monday. The sheriff said Satterlee and Clouatre declined interviews.
Wiley said he plans to meet with District Attorney Ricky Babin early this week about the complaint and could bring his office’s investigation of the incident to a close.
“I, at this point, am skeptical whether or not the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office has jurisdiction over this matter,” Wiley said.
If criminal charges are not pursued, Kelly said, he would file his complaint with the state Ethics Board.
The Houmas House Foundation has been awarded a $5.2 million U.S. Department of Transportation scenic byways grant to build the museum on Mississippi River batture land next to the plantation home. Parish officials have hailed the project as a boost to tourism.
Kelly, who took early steps in 2006 toward a PUD, said he does not want a PUD because it will lock in what he does with Houmas House.
Houmas House, which dates from 1828 when the property was part of a vast sugar cane plantation, is on 38 acres along River Road. The site is in the PUD overlay and a separate historic district, parish officials said.
The historic district gives the Planning Commission the power to review the design of new projects on or next to the sites of historic structures.
For a planned July 13 historic review of Kelly’s project, parish staff recommended conditionally approving the project but halting building permits, planning records say.
The Parish Council would first have to abolish the PUD overlay or exclude historic sites, staff recommended.
In a prepared response, Planning Director Compton said the overlay was never intended for historic sites.
Kelly’s July 12 letter to parish officials alleges the commissioners’ pressure tactics occurred a day before that July 13 meeting.
He alleges the commissioners visited Houmas House and, in an hour-and-a-half private meeting, asked him to bring councilmen to the historic review on July 13.
All planning commissioners also serve as zoning commissioners. The Planning and Zoning commissions would meet back-to-back on July 13.
After the Planning Commission was set to discuss Houmas House, the Zoning Commission was to discuss its subcommittee’s report on the future of the PUD overlay.
After Kelly’s alleged meeting with Clouatre and Satterlee, he wrote the letter pulling Houmas House from the Planning Commission agenda.
“I do not feel that I should be put in the position to lobby the Parish Council to revoke laws that are designed for a Smart Growth, simply because several Planning Commissioners do not like the law as written,” Kelly wrote.
On July 13, the Zoning Commission unanimously backed an August hearing on recommending the council end the PUD overlay.
In their joint statement, Clouatre and Satterlee defended the propriety of the Houmas House visit.
“As commissioners, we take our responsibilities seriously and have each month visited every site on our agendas since our respective appointments,” the statement says.
Satterlee noted Friday his state-mandated training for commissioners calls for visiting sites.
Councilman Kent Schexnaydre said Thursday he would pursue a PUD overlay exception for historic sites. In a June 30 email to Schexnaydre and others, Compton recommended the exception.
“I don’t think you should hold something hostage for something else,” Schexnaydre said.