GONZALES — If the Ascension Parish Council wants to settle a $7 million lawsuit with a family who owns the Prairieville land where a controversial proposed housing development was rejected, they'll have to get enough votes to override a veto.
The veto was a first for first-term Parish President Clint Cointment, who ran on controlling growth in the suburb and has been an outspoken opponent of the Delaune Estates neighborhood because of the traffic he says studies say it would cause for the La. 73 area.
In a veto message, Cointment wrote that the vote to settle the lawsuit and approve the Delaune Estates plat "invalidates the legally established process" through the Planning Commission to review new development and would invite more litigation when other plats are denied.
"My decision to exercise the veto was not an easy one, considering the property rights of the Delaune family and the will of six council members," he wrote. "I bear the Delaunes no ill-will and I do not wish to alienate council members as we attempt to forge a productive working relationship. But I was elected to represent all the citizens in the parish; and protect their health, safety and welfare."
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The lawsuit, which was filed in September in Gonzales by the landowners, has popped up periodically on the council agenda and is shaping up to be a legal test of the parish commission's ability to deny projects believed to pose too much impact to traffic and drainage.
Some council members who voted for the settlement said they worried about the legal risk after the completion of the Interstate 10 widening last year. A new study also suggested the traffic impact from the 86-acre neighborhood off La. 73 and White Road had been improved by the wider I-10 and could be mitigated further with traffic light changes near the I-10 interchange and at La. 73 and White Road.
Teri Casso, council chairwoman, said state highway officials recently told her by letter they would not have a problem with those light changes.
"Once the mitigation is possible, then I think there's a risk for the parish," Casso said. "And regardless of the outcome, the cost of just defending this suit is significant."
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There had been expectations, including from Cointment, that the council might settle in February. But that vote didn't end up happening until Thursday night.
After a nearly 30-minute closed-door session, the 11-member council voted 6-5 to settle the suit and approve the previously denied subdivision plat. Under a motion from Councilman Corey Orgeron, part of the settlement cut the neighborhood's houses from 237 to 227.
The decision prompted a harsh social media backlash for council members who voted for the settlement and comes at a delicate time for Cointment and the Parish Council. They are seeking voter approval Saturday to sell off the parish's sewer assets to the Jim Bernhard-owned National Water Infrastructure and have proclaimed their unity behind the sewer initiative.
Under the home-rule charter, the president must call a meeting within 10 days of his veto. Council members said he has called a meeting for 5:30 p.m. Thursday — but no agenda had been issued by Tuesday evening, and Casso expressed some uncertainty about whether or when a meeting would be held.
That uncertainty centered on whether a meeting was even necessary because it didn't appear, to her, that the council had the required two-thirds majority to override Cointment.
"Certainly, I don’t think if there is an override vote, it can be accomplished," she said Tuesday. "It's pretty clear that we couldn't get the eight (votes needed)."
The charter appears to require that Cointment call for a meeting, however.
Known last year as Antebellum Pointe, Delaune Estates sparked significant public opposition before the Planning Commission in March 2020 and later in July on the developer's appeal to the Parish Council.
The primary point of contention was what impact cars and trucks from the subdivision's new homes would have on La. 73 and its congested corridor around the I-10 interchange.
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Developers argued that once the then-pending widening of I-10 had been completed — it now is — and traffic lights were upgraded around the interchange and north at White Road, the combined changes would have eased traffic enough to allow the development.
A narrow majority on the commission and enough council members, along with Cointment, opposed the proposal to uphold denial. Some suggested the project didn't meet the parish traffic impact policy, while some wanted to wait for I-10 to finish.
Councilman Chase Melancon, who opposed the settlement, said the traffic study counts on signal changes that haven't happened yet and he'd like to see that impact first.
But he also added that the Delaunes have due process under the parish rules and, with the new study, could resubmit the development plans to the commission.
Councilman Aaron Lawler, who cited the new traffic study in explaining his decision to switch his vote from opposing the project last year to supporting the settlement, wrote in a Facebook post that he believes sending the plat back to the commission would not have put an end to the suit. And it also could result in a subdivision approval with 10 more houses than was proposed under the settlement — plus costly legal bills. Lawler expected the case to move to federal court.
"I thought, in light of the fact of the new (study), it was more prudent (to) approve a settlement for fewer houses, no risk and no more lawsuit," he wrote.
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Lawler has been among those to draw severe fire on social media. Melancon said it has been upsetting for him to see any of his council colleagues be accused of "very untrue and hurtful" things.
A lawyer for the landowners who sued the parish didn't return a call for comment Tuesday.