Developers find loophole in Traffic Impact Study policy, up to Council to close it

Strategic Planning Chairman Chase Melancon

On June 21, 2018 Ascension’s Parish Council enacted stricter requirements of subdivision developers, codifying Traffic Impact Analysis (TIA) POLICY.  What passed for policy theretofore had been a running joke among the development community and the parish’s Planning Department for years.  As with any governmental regulation, affected business interests find their way around the roadblock (pun intended) and one citizen watchdog wants a gaping TIA Policy loophole closed.

Jeff Pettit, a regular council meeting attendee/speaker prior to coronavirus and losing the election to unseat the current District 10 representative in 2019, thinks he knows how to do it.  Pettit shared an email sent to the current chairman of the council’s Strategic Planning Committee, Councilman Chase Melancon:

In regards to preliminary plats; we have seen developers time and time again in the required traffic studies use future road improvements in their calculations. If they wish to use those calculations then I suggest they present actual data based on observations collected 30 days or more after final completion of the improvements and not on projections, much like the argument you made in regards to the Antebellum development on Hwy 73.

This would and will assure the residents of our parish that the true and actual impact has been taken into account.  I would also ask you to consider, as chair of Strategic Planning, consideration of requiring, at developer expense, an independent 3rd party review of drainage work. A review of planned vs as-built drainage would and will be of great benefit to all parties and would assure existing residents that the drainage work will and does in fact function as designed.

TIA Policy, in pertinent part, reads:

“A proposed development which is subject to the TIA requirements of this policy 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 impacts the safety of the roadway, or is below the adopted Level of Service (LOS) “D”.  In the case where the existing LOS is below “D”, the required mitigating improvements shall improve the LOS to “D” or better.”

(A relatively paltry) eight subdivision preliminary plats have been presented for approval by Ascension’s Planning Commission since the policy became the law of the land 30 months ago.  Two of them, Amalfi Cove (December 2018) and Antebellum Pointe (March 2020), were denied outright with a third, Evelyn Estates (2019’s only residential preliminary plat application), approved with conditions so onerous that the developer walked away.

18 months elapsed (from October 2018 to June 2020) without a residential subdivision being approved in Ascension Parish due, mainly if not totally, to more stringent TIA Policy.  The development community is a persistent and crafty bunch and it may have found that loophole necessary to void the strictures built into TIA.

Three subdivision preliminary plats have been presented this calendar year, with a fourth set for December according to the Planning Department.  Two of them, Antebellum Pointe and Windsor Park, rely on future road improvements undertaken through Louisiana DOTD to satisfy Level of Service mitigation requirements found in the policy.

Windsor Park’s Traffic Impact Study relied upon future improvements by DOTD on Hwy 42, adding lanes of travel, to mitigate subpar Levels of Service.  It relied upon traffic counts from November 2018 because data in the age of COVID inaccurately depicts normal traffic patterns according to traffic engineer Laurence Lambert.  Lambert assured that adjustments were made to account for additional motorists from subdivisions built and occupied over the last two years; good enough for a 5-2 Commission vote approving the development on Wednesday.

Antebellum Pointe cited, unsuccessfully…

Denial of Antebellum Pointe stands

additional travel lanes being constructed on I-10 as the cure for traffic congestion along the Hwy 73 corridor in Prairieville.  A 4-3 Planning Commission denial in March was upheld by the Parish Council, sitting as the Planning Commission Appeals Board in July.

Explaining his vote, Councilman Chase Melancon recognized the reasons for initial denial by the Planning Commission, the intersection at Hwy 73/White Road dropped to a Level of Service “E” while Subdivision Regulations require “D” or better.  Unwilling to accept that I-10 improvements would rectify the issue, Melancon proposed to defer the plat until “a new Traffic Impact Study when the third (I-10) lane opens.”  By that time a new school and hospital will have opened too, and “we can prove, with actual cars” if the Traffic Study is accurate.

Councilman Melancon chairs Strategic Planning Committee from whence current TIA Policy emanated in 2017.  At the time the committee was chaired by former Prairieville councilman, Daniel “Doc” Satterlee whose proactivity in driving publicly popular legislation through a recalcitrant council alienated more than a few colleagues.  (We still can’t figure out why District 4 voters thought Corey Orgeron was a better representative, but we digress).

Satterlee’s successor occupies a seat on Strategic Planning from which he has shown little inclination to enact law adverse to development interests…

Three councilmen reject Subdivision Regulation proposed to ensure child safety

Orgeron, along with councilmen Dempsey Lambert and John Cagnolatti, twice this year killed the effort to prohibit new subdivisions from exiting onto parish roads narrower than 20 feet.

Strategic Planning Chairman Melancon, who will not say so publicly, was not happy about it.  He did not discount the possibility of bringing measures to strengthen TIA Policy before his committee in 2021, assuming Melancon retains the Strategic Planning chairmanship.  What would be the point of considering such measures as the committee is currently configured?

Potentially controversial legislation, historically, is not broached at the end of any calendar year.  Committee assignments are reshuffled when a new chair of the full council is selected each January.  If Melancon retains the chair, with different membership, there is a chance to close the aforementioned TIA Policy loophole.