The Mandeville City Council, which shot down the controversial Port Marigny development on the lakefront a year and a half ago, voted unanimously Thursday night to rezone the abandoned industrial site so that it can be transformed into a community of homes and commercial spaces.
But the rezoning comes with strict limits for the 78-acre parcel, including a limit of 350 homes.
City Council members said the ordinance is a step forward for a project that has roiled the city for nearly four years and is currently the subject of a lawsuit brought by the property’s owners.
Residents fear increases in traffic and have objected to the density of a mixed-use development that would be very different from a typical suburban neighborhood.
After the City Council rejected the plan last year, the owners, Michael and Marcus Pittman, sued, saying that the city’s action amounted to an unconstitutional taking of their land by depriving them of the right to develop it in a profitable manner.
Neither residents nor the developers expressed satisfaction with the council’s action this week.
Councilman Mike Pulaski, a co-sponsor of the measure, said the ordinance was not sought by the owners and that the Pittmans had said in a letter that they aren't happy with it.
Residents who have steadfastly and loudly opposed the development packed the chambers for the special meeting. Some urged the City Council to take more time, and others suggested that the council was selling out to try to end the lawsuit.
"You guys are selling us out and throwing us under the bus," said resident Jamie Gephart.
She said the council should have called for the resignations of members of the Planning and Zoning Commission, which initially approved the development, adding that residents "had to pay for a planning expert to tell us our own laws."
In their letter, the Pittmans said the measure voted on Thursday wasn’t given to their legal counsel before it was introduced, even after city attorneys told them they wanted to cooperate on a resolution that everyone could agree on.
"The question in our minds is why the City Council would adopt a new ordinance relative to Port Marigny at this time, when the trial date is already scheduled," the letter said. "The answer is simple — it is a litigation tactic."
Ernest Burguières, a former councilman and a longtime critic of the project, urged the council to amend the measure to require final approval from the City Council for various components of the project rather than leaving it to the Planning and Zoning Commission, which he said "missed, or ignored, so much."
Burguières had initially signaled his approval of the new ordinance, calling it a chess move designed to short-circuit the Pittmans' federal lawsuit.
But on Thursday, he complained that the council was giving "ultimate power" to the Planning and Zoning Commission and the city's Planning Department, the very entities that had approved the original project.
Only the City Council, and specifically Councilwoman Lauré Sica, had stopped the project by finding numerous instances where they felt that the plan violated the city's land-use ordinance, Burguières said.
City policy is to discourage development in low-lying areas, and an expert hired by residents had pointed out that much of the land on the Pittmans' site is below 5 feet in elevation. But that issue was hardly discussed by the Planning Department and the commission, Burguières said.
The new measure would leave residents without representation in the event that poor decisions are made, he said, noting that the City Council is elected but the planning commission is not.
Still, Sica and Pulaski said they were satisfied with the ordinance and that it complies with the land-use ordinance. The Planning and Zoning Commission is the body that votes on subdivision approvals and things like grading plans, Sica noted, not the City Council.