GONZALES — Road impact fees on new development in fast-growing Ascension Parish appear headed for a full airing after a new Parish Council and parish president take office in January.
Some Ascension Parish Council members have said the momentum may exist for the 11-member body to bring the issue back up nearly 10 years after impact fees failed by one vote.
“I think, for first time in many years, we have sufficient interest on the council to give it a good look, so that it’s not dead on arrival,” said re-elected Councilwoman Teri Casso, who leads the council Finance Committee and formed a group studying the issue.
Ascension Parish Planning Commissioner Gasper Chifici said the impact fee subcommittee he leads will present its findings, including a proposed range of fees, to the Finance Committee on Dec. 7.
Chifici, whose group has had its review on low simmer for nearly two years, said that means the full council could be considering impact fees by February.
The two men in a Nov. 21 runoff for parish president, Republicans Clint Cointment and Kenny Matassa, have expressed lukewarm interest in road impact fees, although both men also have said they believed something is likely to happen with the fees in the next term.
Matassa said he favors one-on-one negotiations on road improvements with developers instead of impact fees. Cointment, a surveyor, said he is concerned what the fees will cost people who build homes on single lots outside major developments.
“Impact fees are coming,” Cointment said. “But I mean, we have to have a fair and balanced system.”
Chifici noted that the vote on impact fees is the council’s decision, not the parish president’s, but the president will influence the debate.
“I don’t blame either one for not coming out strongly one way or the other on it. I think they want to see what we’re going to recommend. I would certainly wait to see what this committee recommends,” Chifici said.
With an electorate that has not backed a new parishwide tax for Ascension government since 1994, impact fees retain currency. The fees are seen as having new growth pay for itself without asking residents to pay more.
But the concept has faced stiff opposition from builders and others with interests in the parish’s growth-related economy. A bid in 2005 and again in 2006 to approve the fees failed to gain the necessary eight-vote super-majority on the 11-member council amid a strong push from homebuilders and others.
The Capital Region Builders Association’s president said Friday his members are concerned about impact fees. He argued the fees will be an unreliable revenue source tied to the construction cycle and an unfair tax on those fortunate enough to buy a home. He said other regulatory costs already are driving up home costs.
“With the addition of impact fees, housing affordability will be reduced even more,” said Robert Carroll, association president.
The state Attorney General’s Office opined in May that the impact fees are not taxes that need voter approval but fees that can be approved by local bodies.
Cointment said many people have a misperception that impact fees will be paid only by big developments, but the fees, as parish officials and attorneys have said repeatedly, have to be charged on virtually all new development.
He said he wants to be sure what is charged is fair and affordable for people who build their own homes.
“You really have to take a look at development versus the individual citizen, and how the impact fees affect both. That’s what I need a clear distinction and understanding (on),” Cointment said.
He added that he would like to have a discussion with the council about impact fees for other needs.
Matassa, a five-term Gonzales city councilman, was part of a unanimous council that adopted sewer impact fees in the city in late October 2013, the first time impact fees were adopted anywhere in Ascension.
But, for roads, Matassa pointed to Gonzales’ recent agreement on road improvements for the mixed-use Conway Plantation development planned for 344 acres of pasture south of Interstate 10.
Under the deal, the city will have two-lane La. 44 widened to four lanes from I-10 to Loosemore Road, a busy commuter stretch expected to get busier with Conway and other planned growth.
The city has $2 million through state capital outlay and has agreed to a road exchange with the state Department of Transportation and Development. The city will take over long-term responsibility for South Burnside Avenue, or La. 44, in downtown Gonzales, and the city will get $1.39 million toward the La. 44 widening, city officials have said.
The builder of Conway Plantation will contribute the rest for the $5 million to $6 million project, which also will include a roundabout for the mixed-use development, City Clerk Clay Stafford said. He added the city does not yet have a signed agreement.
“You’ve got to do something,” Matassa said. “I would rather take them as they come individually because you might need more for one than another, but you’ve got do something.”
Cointment said he absolutely opposes the DOTD exchange program for Ascension, a concept floated by outgoing Parish President Tommy Martinez a few years ago with little traction.
Parish planning officials have tried to press developers on road improvements, proposing voluntary impact fees this year, with mixed success.
Deric Murphy, a civil engineer who has shepherded many developments through parish approval, said developers will contribute when traffic studies show their projects have an impact. The developer of new phases in Pelican Crossing in Burnside agreed to pay for the design of a major intersection upgrade at La. 44 and Loosemore after a traffic study demonstrated an impact, Murphy said.
But he said many developers worry about a negotiated process because they won’t know upfront what their costs will be when they make investment decisions, potentially creating an unleveled playing field in a competitive market.
He suggested the parish upgrade its road impact study rules if the parish wants to see more help from developers, an effort the parish has had underway for months.
While he expects his industry to fight impact fees, Murphy said that if impact fees happen, he would like to see a comprehensive plan.
“From business standpoint, of course, they don’t want impact fees, but they also understand they need to be a good neighbor as well,” Murphy said.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.