First Anniversary: Jamestown Crossing (sausage-making at its finest)

Planning Commission Chairman Matthew Pryor with Council Chairwoman Teri Casso (2012)

One year ago today Ascension’s Planning Commission approved Jamestown Crossing (two phases), 172 lots on either side of Hwy 930.  It was the last plat approval before the Parish Council enacted a stringent Traffic Impact Analysis policy that would have, in all probability, killed the project.  Hwy 930, a substandard roadway, runs into one of Ascension’s busiest, Hwy 42, an F-rated intersection.

Jamestown Crossing Traffic Impact Analysis conclusion (note the “F”s)

Had current TIA policy, adopted by the Council on June 7, 2018, been in place Dantin Bruce Development would have had to comply with:

A proposed development may be disapproved when the results of the required TIA demonstrate that the proposed project will overburden the existing roadway system by causing a reduction in service of affected roadways, negatively impacting the safety of the roadway, or is below the adopted Level of Service (LOS) “D”.  In the case where the existing Level of Service is below “D”, the required mitigating improvements shall improve the LOS to “D” or better.

On May 9, 2018 the required mitigation, several millions of dollars in Hwy 42 widening according to the Traffic Impact Study for Jamestown Crossing, would have rendered the project untenable, at least cost contraindicated.  And, in all likelihood, Dantin Bruce would not have finalized the sale recorded with Ascension’s Clerk of Court on January 25 whereby the developer purchased property from a group of landowners that included Councilwoman Teri Casso.

The purchase price was $4,256,062.50.

A study recommending the more stringent TIA policy…

had been provided to parish administration by Urban Systems, Inc. in April of 2016; buried until “it was given to” Councilman Aaron Lawler…

who had risen to chair the Transportation Committee, “in spring or summer of 2017.”

Lawler claimed Urban Systems’ work product was without value, which did not stop him from adding the company to his committee’s February 5, 2018 agenda.  That’s when Christine Darrah, the April 2016 document’s signing engineer, was introduced by Planning Director Jerome Fournier.  None of Transportation’s five members took note of Darrah’s passing reference to the existing 2016 study which would be negligibly altered by the firm.

Since Urban Systems had already performed the study it only took another, relatively paltry, $25,000 for an update.  Darrah returned to Lawler’s committee on May 7, 2018 to deliver the finalized, updated, work product.  Transportation recommended Urban Systems’ proposal for more restrictive TIA, patterned closely after St. Tammany Parish’s (just like it was in April of 2016) to the full council.

Two days later and Jamestown Crossing, with its myriad deficiencies, was approved by the Planning Commission.  The updated policy would become the law in Ascension when a unanimous council adopted it on June 7, 2018

The fact that Hwy 930 is substandard, averaging 17.3 feet of crumbling asphalt over its length according to Planning Director Jerome Fournier, was no impediment to Commission approval (even in the face of Ascension’s Land Development Code 17-4032 Street Requirements):

A. The Commission shall apply the following rules in evaluation of subdivision applications:
1. Density Restrictions
a. No major or minor subdivision may be developed on any street which is less than 18’ in pavement width.

The approval was a 4-3 vote (Julio Dumas, Morrie Bishop, Ken Firmin, and Matthew Pryor in the majority).  Pryor would say of the ordinance:

“Does that mean the whole roadway needs to be wider than 18 feet?  Does it mean an average?  Or does it mean as long as there’s portions that are 18 feet wide it’s acceptable?”

An awful lot of elements had to fall into place for Jamestown Crossing’s approval.  First and foremost a “pro-development,” rubber-stamp Planning Commission was an absolute necessity.

There was a time, nearly a decade ago, when a nine-member Planning Commission freely exercised its discretionary authority to the disdain of developers and the consternation of elected officialdom relying on them for campaign contributions.  On December 19, 2011 the Council abolished that nine-member panel, canning every commissioner in favor of a kinder, gentler, more generous group (if you happen to be a subdivision developer).  Julio Dumas, one of those canned commissioners who would be reappointed in 2016, even spoke in favor of abolition.

Councilwoman-elect (she would be seated one month later) Teri Casso emailed the following to Matthew Pryor on December 2, 2011…

urging him to mobilize the Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Ascension class to support abolition.  Is it mere coincidence that Pryor would be appointed to the newly-configured seven-member Planning Commission a couple of years later?  Pryor has openly admitted to being “pro-development” from the commission’s chair which he has occupied going on three years.

Casso’s cousin, and fellow property seller to Jamestown Crossing, Beth James occupied a lofty position in former president Tommy Martinez’s administration back in 2011.  She also lobbied for abolition of the “rogue Planning Commission” which was done by a unanimous vote on December 19 eight years ago.  The vote ignored 30 public speakers desiring to retain the nine-member panel.

None of which would have salvaged Jamestown Crossing’s unconditional approval one year ago if District 7 Councilman Aaron Lawler had not buried the Urban Systems report for a year.  The current policy:

In the case where the existing Level of Service is below “D”, the required mitigating improvements shall improve the LOS to “D” or better

was employed yesterday to require two costly roundabout intersections on a 43-lot subdivision…

Traffic Impact Analysis in action: Evelyn Estates approval conditioned on intersection improvements

which means Evelyn Estates will never be built.  Coincidentally, the develop lies within Teri Casso’s District 8.  For whatever reason, her District 7 colleague delayed implementation of the new policy just long enough for Jamestown Crossing to be approved without desperately needed infrastructure being required.

And it was not the first time she benefited financially from a District 7 councilman’s charcuterie.

Political “sausage-making” and District 8 Councilwoman’s 155,000 leafs of cabbage

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