How did (arbitrary) 3′ cap on residential fill material come about?

As Ascension’s Council is set to consider capping fill material on every construction project at three feet, nobody seems to know how that number came about.  Currently the operative ordinance (Section 17-507) limits fill to three feet on lots smaller than 1/2 an acre, allowing more fill on larger lots, commercial development, major/minor subdivisions only when mitigating for fill in excess of three feet.  Proposed changes would eliminate the ability to mitigate, establishing a hard cap at three feet..

The new ordinance has aroused the ire of local developers and private citizens alike.  And yet, nobody has been able to explain the changes much less defend them.  None of the current administration engineers, planners or elected officials could say why the current law, enacted on December 5, 2013, was adopted either.

Answers about fill material/BFE in short supply at Monday meeting

Multiple Council members have taken to calling it “arbitrary” without much discussion about effect on any particular property owner.  So, just how did the three foot rule come about?

According to the minutes of that December 5, 2013 meeting the vote to approve the current regulation was 6-4 with Dempsey Lambert absent (not the first, or the last, controversial vote he avoided).

Minutes of December 5, 2013 Council meeting

You might have noted the minutes above include “four feet” of fill included in the proposed ordinance six years ago.   Councilman Randy Clouatre moved to amend the ordinance to “three feet” only minutes before the vote.

“What we don’t want to have is somebody taking a small lot, building up on it, and draining all their water into the neighbor’s yard,” explained former Councilman Kent Schexnaydre.  That’s the intent of this…It’s been researched for years” with discussions about fill height ranging from two to four feet.

Schexnaydre had shepherded the ordinance through Strategic Planning as that committee’s chair.  Much more discussion had occurred about ensuring the optimal slope (3 to 1 it was determined) than correct height of fill material.  Barely any discussion was had about the effect on Major Subdivisions.

Former District 2 councilman Kent Schexnaydre (r) conferring with his soon to be successor days before the October 24, 2015 election.

“We’re looking for a way to protect the citizens that are already living here from somebody moving next to them and draining all of their water onto (existing residents’) property,” Schexnaydre added.

He was not talking about Major Subdivisions moving next to existing homes.

“I’m all for the regulation because I do have some of the ant nests,” Councilman Randy Clouatre employed the moniker applied to homes built atop “mountains of fill…We’ve got people filling boundary to boundary and they have no responsibility for their runoff.”

The threadbare majority vote on December 5, 2013 was the culmination of numerous committee meetings.

Former parish president Tommy Martinez

“At some point common sense has to prevail and you gotta look at some of these areas,” then parish president, Tommy Martinez went on the record at Strategic Planning’s October 7, 2013 session.  “I’d rather see a subdivision built on piers (allowing water to flow underneath homes).  Anything above three or four feet, I think you should require pilings at that point.  No matter what.”

FEMA Base Flood Elevation requirements mean much of Ascension’s construction must be built higher than four feet or no flood insurance can issue.

“How did we establish the 48″?  Who came up with that number,” asked Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee, ever inquisitive, at the October 7, 2013 Strategic Planning meeting.  “There’s probably some land in the parish that, arguably, shouldn’t be developed because it’s swamp.”

Doc Satterlee [2013]

There is a reason the highly developed Swamp Road in Satterlee’s District 4 is so named.

“Regardless of what you do, it ends up being a semi-arbitrary number that you start with,” countered Kent Schexnaydre.  “We tried it at three feet (in 2010) and it wasn’t accepted.”

At the time Ricky Compton was Ascension’s Planning Director.  He proposed implementing a 24″ fill maximum since any number applicable to an entire parish with six (or is it eight) separate and distinct flood basins would, necessarily, be arbitrary.

“You either can support a development where you’re adding eight feet of fill, or do we want to say four feet of fill is right?” Compton was focusing on Major Subdivisions.  “If you can’t figure out how to engineer it, maybe a subdivision shouldn’t go there.  That’s the answer.”

It was Compton who, at Council urging, provided the current ordinance’s verbiage.  Strategic Planning would task Compton and Ascension’s Planning Commission to come up with a recommendation.  Two days hence, the Planning Director appeared before that commission to explain that Council members were getting squeezed by constituents unhappy about “pyramids” being built up next to their houses.

“(The Council) is ready for there to be something in place that allows the parish to tell people ‘you can’t build it that high anymore,'” Compton told the Planning Commission.  “They’re tired of telling people ‘it’s a civil matter.'”

He had included Major/Minor Subdivisions because “we didn’t believe a major subdivision should have a different set of rules than individual lots.”  The Planning Director did not elaborate on why those distinctions should not be made.

“I wanted to create layers that would give people flexibility,” he explained.  “Whatever the height is will be decided at the Council level.  They are saying ‘we are done seeing new residential with that much…

disproportionate difference between neighbors.'”

Josh Ory was among the Commissioners concerned over the arbitrariness of 48″.  Commissioner Gaspar Chifici would concede that his previous stance, allowing any amount of fill “as long as you mitigate it,” was probably in error.

“There’s a limit,” Chifici said on October 9, 2013.  “I’m not in favor of filling a swamp.  If someone has to put six feet of fill on a lot, you probably shouldn’t be developing that lot.”

Which is still allowed so long as mitigation measures, swale ditches on individual lots and detention ponds in subdivisions, are approved.  When ponds are dug “Compensating storage excavations must be constructed to drain freely towards the established drainage for the area.”

What the current Council will do about it is anybody’s guess.