Helpless Planning Commission can’t slow 4751 new lots; blame legislators for traffic woes

Another standing room only crowd showed up to Ascension Planning Commission’s latest meeting on Wednesday in the vain attempt to stem the tide of new subdivision approvals; which mean ever-increasing traffic congestion on the parish’s already overburdened roads.  Three residential subdivision plats were approved adding 568 more residential lots, 405 along Hwy 73 in Geismar and Prairieville, and another 163 lots along Hwy 44 just south of the City of Gonzales.  And there is no end in site.

“There are 4,751 lots that are either currently being built or under review right now in Ascension Parish,” said Parish Engineer Rhonda Braud during the Staff Report segment of Wednesday’s meeting.

Planning Commission has approved over 4,000 lots over the last five years which, according to Planning Department personnel, translate to an additional “40,000 vehicle trips per day on parish roads…and also impact sewer, drainage and the school system.”  The numbers are growing; Braud’s calculations evidenced a 43% increase in new residential lot approvals from 2014 to 2015.

It could have been worse.  A commercial subdivision promising 13,000 new vehicle trips per day near Hwy 73’s intersection with Hwy 30 was deferred until next month.

Just before affixing the Commission’s rubberstamped seal of approval to a third residential subdivision three commissioners shifted the onus to local state legislators, parish elected officials, an outdated Master Plan, the voting public who rejected a transportation tax, Hurricane Katrina, the Uniform Land Development Code…

Commissioners Matt Pryor, Gasper Chifici, and Chairman Jackie Callender absolved the Commission and development community.  Whether that absolution is warranted is a matter of conjecture, but no one rose to argue the point.

Stoney Point Estates, a 126.5 acre development with 120 lots was approved in a Conservation-zoned area along Hwy 73, south of its intersection with Hwy 429 (Cornerview), with no public resistance.  According to Planning Director Ricky Compton five earlier attempts to develop the property would have included “upwards of 400 lots” and necessitated rezoning.

“(Stoney Point Estates) is by far the finest layout for this piece of property,” Compton opined “and a fine addition to our product line.”

Belle Savanne, a 285-lot development on 104.8 acres next to Dutchtown High School was not so warmly received.

Murphy“We understand that traffic in this area is obviously a point of concern,” conceded Belle Savanne’s representative, Deric Murphy.

It was deferred from November’s agenda, in large part, to reconfigure Belle Savanne’s layout to include an east-west road connecting Hwy 73 to Bluff Rd.  Additional traffic concerns, including 48 driveways backing onto the development’s primary street, also had to be addressed.  That issue was resolved by converting the street to a boulevard.

Neel-Schaffer Engineering performed Belle Savanne’s traffic impact study focused on potential worsening at Hwy 73. A left-hand turn lane into the facility is planned, and a right-hand turn lane from Belle Savanne onto Hwy 73.

“They’ve done about all they can do,” concluded Ascension’s traffic engineer.

And they did more.  In conjunction with Louisiana’s DOTD plans include the road to connect Hwy 73 and Bluff Rd after “extensive meetings” with the state’s transportation agency and Ascension planning officials.  Commissioner Gasper Chifici noted that he has never witnessed that level of DOTD involvement before.

“A key piece to (DOTD’s) overall solution to the area was an east-west roadway between Bluff Rd and 73 to alleviate the traffic off of C Braud Rd and potentially remove that signal that is so close to the interstate,” said Nick Ferlito of Neel-Schaffer.  “The development will construct a good portion of that roadway but tie in to 73 and Bluff would ultimately be done through DOTD.”

The traffic signal controlling C Braud’s intersection with Hwy 73 is mere feet from I-10’s eastbound off ramp.

“This is part of the long range solution,” Deric Murphy echoed Ferlito.  “Cars are already on Bluff Rd.  It’s a matter of how you get them there.”

Belle Savanne’s third phase, including 97 of the 285 lot total, is contingent upon DOTD finalizing the connection to Bluff Rd.  The development borders subdivisions fronting Hwy 74, which runs perpendicular to Hwy 73 to the south, but no plans exist to connect Belle Savanne to those subdivisions.

Drainage issues will take some time to address but the commission approved Belle Savanne anyway, contingent upon those issues being resolved to parish planning department’s satisfaction.  Deric Murphy, who qualified projections of the development time frame on market forces, said construction of Belle Savanne’s first phase should commence in 2016.

The third and final phase, triggered by DOTD’s bidding out of the Bluff Rd connection, could happen in 2018.  No certificate of occupancy will be issued to a lot in that third phase until DOTD does so and Deric Murphy assured that the plat will include operative language to that effect when submitted to the commission for Chairman Jackie Callender’s signature.

Oak Lake is a 163-lot development sited on 54.8 acres across Hwy 44 from Conway Development in the City of Gonzales.  It will share a roundabout entrance which is planned by Conway but, if that roundabout is not constructed, Oak Lake will be required to build turn lanes into and out of the subdivision.

Traffic concerns are more acute to the south at Hwy 44’s intersection with Loosemore Rd.  DOTD has long considered a roundabout there too but existing pipelines have forced relocation.  According to Nick Ferlito a roundabout is being considered further south on Hwy 44 which could mean restricting motorists entering the highway from Loosemore Rd to exit right and use the roundabout to redirect northbound.

“There’s really nothing (Oak Lake), that I could recommend that they could do, to change that,” offered Planning’s traffic engineer.  “The only thing that will help the Loosemore/44 intersection is a traffic signal and widening to four lanes.”

Which is beyond the scope of any single developer.  A roundabout, costing $4 million, would transform the intersection from its current “F” level of service to an “A” according to Planning.

On Monday the City of Gonzales’ Planning Commission was presented with a 350-lot Traditional Neighborhood Development within a few tenths of a mile from Oak Lake to the north.  Conway’s mixed uses envision 931 residential units including individual lots and apartments.

“Has anyone at the parish heard of a realistic, what’s going on from DOTD’s perspective, to extend Hwy 44 at least to Loosemore?” wondered Commissioner Josh Ory.

Interestingly enough, Parish President-elect Kenny Matassa’s campaign already took credit for brokering a deal to do just that.  Conway’s developer agreed to add a third, northbound Hwy 44 lane back to I-10 and is negotiating with DOTD and the city to add the fourth, southbound lane to Loosemore.  Hwy 44 is a boulevard from I-10 north to Hwy 30, all within Gonzales’ city limits and has been for decades.

“I don’t know what the city’s doing,” responded Nick Ferlito who must not have paid attention to Ascension’s race for the parish presidency.  DOTD is considering improvements to Hwy 44 all the way south to Hwy 22 and “considers Loosemore almost a sub-project” he added.

Oak Lake, if it saves the cost of improving its entrance, is ready to contribute $75,000 to the Loosemore intersection study.