Dwindling developable acreage, Council considers options to accommodate expected growth

Vacant land (including agriculture and open space) from existing land use inventory minus wetlands and flood hazard areas.

For the better part of a decade Capital Region Planning Commission (CRPC) and certain members of the Parish Council have pushed the narrative that 52,000 more people occupying 22,500 more “housing units” will come to reside in Ascension by 2042.  That would mean a 41% population increase in two decades compared to the 18% spike since the 2010 census.  On Thursday the Sugarland, Texas firm of Kendig Keast Collaborative gave the Parish Council a rudimentary overview of the implications of growth trends during another videoconference meeting.

Given that Ascension’s least restrictive residential zoning (RM-Medium Intensity) allows three lots per acre, a minimum of 7,500 acres is necessary to accommodate those expected “housing units” unless the Zoning Tables are drastically amended.  In light blue below, Ascension is running out of undeveloped RM-zoned acreage.

Medium Intensity (RM) in light blue (3 lots per acre); Rural in purple (2 lots per acre); Conservation in green (1 lot per acre).

None of which even considered the parish’s overburdened infrastructure, the reason for the current moratorium.  What does 7,500 acres look like?

“Left unchecked, growth can be really dangerous to quality of life,” said Tareq Wafaie, Project Manager for the firm hired to examine Ascension’s Land Development Code and corresponding ordinances during the 9-month moratorium enacted by the Council.

Ascension, according to Wafaie’s preliminary findings, may be approaching the “tipping point” at which rural acreage becomes suburban, then (possibly) urban.  Which presents a host of problems:

  • Traffic congestion
  • Flooding issues
  • Major budgetary impacts

“We need to think pretty hard about where we’re accommodating growth,” he paraphrased a decades old mantra so accurately one would think he’s been watching meetings of the Planning Commission in his spare time.  “Are we doing that in a responsible way to make sure that our infrastructure can handle it?”

The answer to that is, if Kendig Keast factors in public sentiment, NO! Moving on…

Consider the residents of St. Amant for example.  According to President Clint Cointment they chose to live in the area zoned Rural, in large part, because it limits development to two lots per acre. (See Zoning Map above, green areas are zoned Rural).

Is that projected population growth a fait accompli or can the Parish Council enact ordinances and policy to limit it?  Will traffic congestion, drainage and other infrastructure deficiencies be considered when targeting an area for higher density?

“There are adequate facilities ordinances that look at the design capacity of roadways…and limit development to the capacity of that roadway,” Bret Keast addressed one of the parish president’s concerns.

Like the ordinance introduced during two Strategic Planning Committee meetings in 2020…

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the ultimate decision will be made by the governing authority, i.e. the Parish Council.

During the post-presentation Q & A Prairieville’s own Councilman Aaron Lawler asked, “Are there going to be areas where we want higher density?”  After all, a 41% population increase means you gotta put ’em somewhere.  Lawler also asked Wafaie to assess the Master Land Use Plan adopted by the Planning Commission on May 29, 2019.

“(The Master Plan) is a result of a lot of work on the parish’s behalf,” Wafaie opined…”to take the pulse of the community.”

The public pulse, circa 2019 (and beating stronger now)

The CPEX-led Master Land Use Plan process did a lot of things, but implementing recommendations suggested by the public was not one of them.  Kendig Keast is still in the remedial phase of its education.

President Cointment suggested that Ascension’s incorporated municipalities should be factored into the equation to accommodate growth, and affordable housing options, another of Councilman Lawler’s concerns.  A little presumptuous maybe, but a point well-taken.  Councilman Joel Robert, whose District 2 includes the Town of Sorrento and Conway Subdivision inside Gonzales’ city limits championed Mixed Use already being implemented in Gonzales.

Citing Conway and Heritage Crossing (both in Gonzales), Robert championed the benefits of self-contained mixed use developments with amenities on site.  For example, Heritage Crossing will feature a supermarket…

Heritage Crossing welcomes Alexander’s Heritage Market to Gonzales

allowing residents to shop inside the development without having to access already overburdened roadways.

“You’ve just touched on a fundamental issue,” Bret Keast assessed a “problem of separating land uses being faced all over the nation.”

Preliminary findings resulted in a few preliminary conclusions.  Keagan Keast, citing the Master Land Use Plan, recommended:

  • Emphasis on Mixed Use
  • Activity Centers (Neighborhood Hubs)
  • Encourage growth on the West Bank
  • Build where infrastructure allows
  • Build where nature allows