ABOLISH Planning Commission: The Oak Grove Townhouses debacle

“I don’t have to read my entire pre-written motion to approve do I?” wanted to know Commissioner Julio Dumas, architect of the debacle.

Witnessing the Planning Commission’s March 14 RECONSIDERATION of once denied Oak Grove Townhouses first hand, something was amiss.  Upon review of the YouTube recording it was much worse; an outrageous contortion of parish procedure, a suspension of the rules to give another developer its way.  If this is the how it’s going to be Ascension’s Planning and Zoning Commission has outlived any usefulness it may have had and should be ABOLISHED.

It wouldn’t be the first time.  The Parish Council did so in December of 2011 when a nine-member Planning Commission performed its duty, maddening the development community by enforcing the Land Development Code to the consternation of another pro-development Council.  The Council reconstituted a seven-member Commission stacked with members unwilling to defy whatever developer fattened the campaign coffers of certain council members.

The commission’s mere existence allows your elected Parish Council to abrogate its duties and responsibilities.  The debacle that was Oak Grove Townhouses is proof positive that concerns of frustrated citizens will continue to be ignored by this Council which refuses to hear an appeal, referring plats back to Planning until they get it right (meaning approved).

So, this time, abolish the commission without replacing it.

Louisiana Revised Statute 33:102 reads; “Every parish and every municipality…may create by ordinance a planning commission…”  But the parish is not required to do so.

Ridding Ascension of Planning’s rubber stamp would require amendment of Section 4-18 of the Home Rule Charter which obliges the Council to “create by ordinance a planning commission with the powers and duties set forth in state law…”  The Home Rule Charter Revision Committee that’s seated right now includes your writer who intends to propose an amendment allowing the Planning Commission’s abolition.

Oak Grove Townhouses, like Reese Lane Subdivision, was denied by Planning only to be referred back by a Council (sitting as Planning’s Appeal Board).

Councilman Aaron Lawler made the motion because of “a tenuous argument” that developers were denied a non-existent rebuttal period on November 8, 2017.  So back to to Planning went Oak Grove Townhouses which rebutted nothing, introducing wholly new information about an off-site weir in Willow Lake subdivision.  Dantin Bruce Development agreed to place $100,000 in escrow toward improvements that very likely will never be done and the cash will be returned.

Commissioner Wade Schexnaydre attempted to stop the appeal before it got started, asking Legal Adviser Cody Martin if Dantin Bruce was entitled to a “rebuttal period” in Planning’s codes.  They are not according to Martin.  All of which was ignored by Chairman Matt Pryor who reasoned:

“The decisions we make are final to the extent that they’re subject to an appeal process.  And that appeal process was to an individually appointed appeal board which oversaw our actions and determined whether they were appropriate or not.  The Council saw fit to disband (the former 3-member Appeals Board) and take it upon their own self which is not bad; they are elected officials.  Those are the ones who are ultimately accountable to the public.”

“To the extent, I’m assuming, I was not at the Council when they did this and I don’t know what they said; But, I would assume they found a flaw in the process to the extent they would like us to reconsider.  They appointed us and they’re the elected officials.  I do think it’s our duty to give it reconsideration as directed by the elected officials of our parish.”

The Council avoids accountability to the public by refusing to hear appeals, that’s the point.

Commissioner Julio Dumas, absent on November 8, participated in cutting a deal to appease angry residents.  Which seems curious until one reviews his Planning track record.  Dumas, who drafted his motion to approve Oak Grove Townhouses before hearing the (non) rebuttal (see image above), would add:

“I think the Parish Council, in its great wisdom, for whatever reason, decided that they felt that the petitioner should have been given adequate opportunity to rebut the thing and further discuss the motion that was made at the time.  I was not here.  I wasn’t present so, all I can tell you is that I think we’ve been asked to revisit the matter by the Parish Council and I think it behooves us to move forward and do this in the normal course of business.”

Great wisdom?  Normal course of business?

That was the argument against Schexnaydre’s motion to simply reinstate the November 8 denial.  It was much worse when Dumas read his pre-prepared motion for approval (did we mention he was not even present the first time around?).

“I had the opportunity to meet with the councilman and the developer and hear the situation,” he prefaced the motion before commending “the developer for spending quality time and taking advantage of the appeal process to meet with you guys in the community and address the issue.  I hope I don’t have to read this into the record.  Do I Cody?”

Since Dumas wasn’t there how could he be expected to know that there were multiple issues provided for the plat’s denial?  We would agree that Dantin Bruce, with Julio Dumas’ assistance, took advantage of the appeal process.

“I’m going to make a motion to approve subject to the following conditions:

Prior to signing the final plat by the Chairman of the Planning Commission, the applicant must establish an escrow account for the amount determined by a registered civil engineer, not to exceed 100,000 US Dollars, for the sole purpose of adjusting the height of the weir and provide other drainage related improvements under the control of Willow Lake… Funds may onlybe used by Willow Lake subdivision.

The escrow account must be available for a period not exceed 24 months from the date the final plat is executed and recorded.  In the event Willow Lake fail(s) to complete the lowering of the weir within those 24 months the developer may close  the escrow account and recoup his funds, and shall be relieved of any further obligation.

But it’s Ascension Parish which will have to “complete the lowering of the weir” if, in fact, that is even a solution to Willow Lake’s off-site drainage problems.  No parish engineer has reviewed Dantin Bruce’s engineering conclusion.  Other flaws in the Dumas/Lawler/Dantin Bruce/Willow Lake plan include:

(1) A weir sounds like major drainage which would make it the exclusive province of East Ascension Drainage Board (EAD has never considered it);

(2) EA Drainage has had projects on the books for decades and we wonder which one will get bumped to accommodate Willow Lakes;

(3) “Lowering a weir and other drainage related improvements” will cost an awful lot more than $100,000.  Will EA Drainage divert monies from…

  • Laurel Ridge Levee extension;
  • Marvin Braud Pump Station improvements;
  • Improvement to Bluff Swamp Basin Drainage & New Frog Bayou Locks;
  • Panama Canal Dredging from Louisiana Regional Airport north of Pelican Point to Hwy 70 in Sorrento;
  • Bayou Manchac Dredging;
  • Enlargement of Conway Bayou Drainage Basin Regional Reservoir;
  • Major Channel Maintenance, $5 million.

There are other projects under discussion.

Ascension Parish, even if it spent the money, will not get around to Willow Lake’s weir in 24 months and Dantin Bruce will get their $100,000 out of escrow, “relieved of any further obligation.”  And Oak Grove Townhouses will be built, further congesting roads and worsening drainage.  All because certain members of the Parish Council have abrogated their duties to the people who elected them, and impaneled Planning Commissioners like Julio Dumas, Matt Pryor, Morrie Bishop, and Tony Christy (the four votes to approve Oak Grove Townhouses).

It’s time to abolish the Planning Commission so that elected council members will have to make the tough votes.  And then their constituents can cast theirs.