La._44_Oak_Lake_C.121218

Cars and trucks pass Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018, by an 765-foot section of roadway on La. 44 that the developers of Oak Lake subdivision built as part of an impact fee credit agreement with Ascension Parish government for the 163-home neighborhood under construction south of Gonzales. The road section, which joins to nothing on either end, is waiting to be connected to other parts of the La. 44 expansion yet to be finished.

GONZALES — A draft of Ascension Parish's proposed comprehensive plan proposes a broader range of housing densities than is currently allowed by zoning and encourages new kinds of development types while forecasting new growth on the parish's rural west bank, a chief planner of the document said.

Janet Tharp, director of planning for the Center for Planning Excellence, said the plan is trying to accommodate growth projections for Ascension over the next 20 to 25 years, when the parish is expected to add more than 50,000 people.

Tharp said the plan will be ready for review in the beginning of May with the goal of having it before the parish Planning Commission at the end of that month.

Ascension continues to be one of the fastest growing parishes in the state as people leave Baton Rouge and other areas for the parish's schools and the economic opportunities deriving from industries along the Mississippi River.

Between mid-2010 and mid-2017, Ascension was the second-fastest growing parish in the state, adding 15,745 people, a nearly 14.7 percent growth rate, the latest census estimates say.

Only St. Bernard Parish grew faster in that time. St. Bernard is one of a few New Orleans-area parishes to see strong growth in the recovery after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Ascension had 122,948 people in 2017.

A blueprint for parish growth that has been under development since early 2018, this new Ascension master plan would update an existing plan more than 20 years old. Tharp was reporting the progress of that new plan to the parish Planning Commission on Wednesday night. 

The parish is separately working on a road master plan and revising its drainage and fill rules, all efforts that are expected to fit in with the master plan work.

This try at a master plan comes after an earlier effort under former Parish President Tommy Martinez, between 2008 and 2010, was scuttled amid strong opposition over some of its growth proscriptions.

The work on the latest plan has prompted a few rounds of public input sessions on both sides of the Mississippi River. Those sessions have drawn residents calling for greater growth opportunities for the west bank community of Donaldsonville but also those on the fast-growing east bank who resisted any new growth until more infrastructure was built, despite the parish's seemingly inexorable growth trends.

Shortly after Tharp discussed the plan Wednesday, the commissioners would learn in their regularly monthly update that 22 developments comprising nearly 1,900 new residential units were in various phases of review or infrastructure construction necessary before new homes can be built.

Planning Commission Chairman Matt Pryor and Tharp engaged in a pointed discussion at the commissioner's prompting about the plan's intentions.

Tharp explained to Pryor that the plan was not designed to encourage the growth projected to occur in Ascension — one fear that in the past has been raised about master plans in the parish — but to present ways to manage the growth if it does come as expected. 

"How to accommodate the growth that could be coming," Pryor jumped in. "It's not an indication. It's if the trend keeps going as it is, this is a plan on how to accommodate that growth."

"That's right," Tharp said. 

The growth projections used in the plan come from a Capital Region Planning Commission estimate. 

Still two longtime critics of how the parish has grown and who worked on the existing master plan spoke against the new revision, saying it didn't represent the public's views and would allow housing that was too compact for the parish's rural flair.

Theresa Robert, a community activist, local restaurateur and onetime political candidate who regularly speaks out on development issues, said while there are good parts to the plan, the residential density increases could create the opportunity for more severe changes later that would undermine the parish's feel.

"Once we open up the door as far as the change, it opens up the danger for residents who live here and came here because they wanted a certain level of quality of life," Robert said.

One of the points of concern in the plan is the neighborhood hubs, which would mix housing and commercial projects at significantly higher housing density than neighborhood tracts.

But the plan also calls for far less density than is currently zoned in low-lying areas outside the parish's levees, at just one unit per five acres. The higher density, plan materials say, would also mean less land would be used up as the parish grows. 

Under questioning from commissioners, Tharp said the hubs and some other proposals would require changes to the parish zoning ordinance even after the master plan is adopted.

Copies of the proposed land use map are available on the planning effort's website, but a proposed document that will make a variety of recommendations about growth management won't be available until May 1 or 2, Tharp said. 

Open houses on the latest iteration of the master plan are set from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. April 30 at the Gonzales Civic Center, 219 S. Irma Blvd., Gonzales, and on May 1 at Lowery Elementary School, 2389 La. 1 South, Donaldsonville. Presentations are planned at 6 p.m. 

Tharp said the plan is currently scheduled to be before the commission in a special meeting May 29, with a meeting to follow before the Parish Council in June.


Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.