One year ago today: Revisiting Oak Grove Townhouses debacle

Commissioner Julio Dumas’ pre-drafted conditions and/or contingencies for Oak Grove Townhouses approval

One year ago today Ascension’s Planning Commission reversed itself, completing the most egregious betrayal of the public trust ever perpetrated by that appointed body.  There is ample blame to go around, not limited to four commissioners who approved Oak Grove Townhouses on March 14, 2018 after the panel denied the plat on November 8, 2017.  One individual, perfectly positioned to avoid the February 15, 2018 appeal, then engineer approval of the once denied subdivision plat, is most culpable for this disgrace…District 7 Councilman Aaron Lawler.

Initially denied by the Commission in the face of opposition from several residents of Willow Lake Subdivision, through which Oak Grove Townhouses is supposed to drain, Dantin Bruce Development lodged an appeal to the Parish Council.  The 4-2 vote to deny in November 2017 was premised upon flooding concerns cited by Commissioners Ken Firmin and Tony Christy, traffic woes by Commissioner Wade Schexnaydre.

The Council, at the urging of Councilman Lawler whose district includes the subject property, referred the preliminary plat back to the Planning Commission for RECONSIDERATION on February 15, 2018.  Lawler explained his motion:

“…to refer this back to the Planning Commission based on irregularities with the prior Commission’s meeting.  Certainly we’re not admitting that there were any irregularities, but I am recommending that we move it back to the Planning Commission to prevent any further issues with that…(To correct a potential problem with the developer not getting their rebuttal period)…It’s a tenuous argument and I’m not saying it’s correct.  I’m just trying to avoid any further complications with it.”

Lawler, an attorney himself, had to know there were no “irregularities” because Dantin Bruce was not entitled to any “rebuttal period” which appears nowhere in pertinent parish ordinances.  Planning Director Jerome Fournier was on hand to assure that Dantin Bruce was provided unlimited time to address any and every concern raised during the November 2017 hearing of its preliminary plat.

Six members of the Council sided with Lawler and Oak Grove Townhouses would get a second bite at the apple before the Planning Commission.  Todd Lambert and Daniel “Doc” Satterlee voted against referral back to the Commission, Benny Johnson was absent yet again.  And…

RECONSIDERATION of once denied Oak Grove Townhouses: The fix is in.

…the fix was in.  Councilman Aaron Lawler went to work on Dantin Bruce’s behalf anticipating the March 14, 2018 RECONSIDERATION.

Lawler went about his business, moonlighting as Ross Bruce’s secretary to coordinate the developer’s negotiation with unhappy residents of Willow Lake.  They would meet with residents and a few Planning Commissioners to concoct the most harebrained condition upon which any preliminary plat has ever been approved in Ascension Parish, which is saying something.

March 6, 2018 email from Ross Bruce memorializing understanding

It culminated in…

ABOLISH Planning Commission: The Oak Grove Townhouses debacle

Commissioner Julio Dumas prefaced his tortured motion to approve Oak Grove Townhouses the second time around (he was not present for the November 2017 denial):

“I had the opportunity to meet with the councilman and the developer and hear the situation,” thanking “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?”

Commissioner Julio Dumas’ pre-drafted conditions and/or contingencies for Oak Grove Townhouses approval

He did.

“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 only be 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.

The Commission reversed  itself, voting 4-3 to approve Oak Grove Townhouses on March 14, 2018.  Planning Chairman Matthew Pryor warned Willow Lake residents that Ascension Parish would have to approve and oversee any and all drainage works, advising them to apply pressure on the powers that be to ensure the work being done.

The next day Councilman Aaron Lawler sent the following email:

Reflected in said email was “a run in” between Lawler and your writer after the Planning Commission’s travesty.  He took issue with his motives being questioned and we went nose-to-nose for a few minutes.  Boys will be boys.

Lawler, without having gotten “a game plan for helping the people of Willow Lake” together before engineering this boondoggle, called upon President Kenny Matassa’s administration and the chairman of EA Drainage, Councilman Dempsey Lambert, to bail him out.

Yeah, get Lawler to set it up

Apparently, it did not go according to plan (or maybe it did).

Willow Lake resident, Rich Hymel responded on May 22 seeking a meeting with Ascension’s “drainage department” in order to “discuss the proposed improvements at willow lake.”  Were these residents led to believe that $100,000 would pay for the recommended improvements?  Were they fooled into thinking Parish Government or East Ascension Drainage would cover any shortages?

That was never going to happen.  On August 18 Hymel wrote:

Proposed improvement to Willow Lake drainage has never come before East Ascension Drainage Board, and it never will.  The residents of Willow Lake were sold a pig in a poke, fooled into thinking there issues would be addressed at the partial expense of Dantin Bruce Development which will park $100,000 in an interest-bearing escrow account until 24 months elapse and the money is returned… and they get to develop Oak Grove Townhouses in one of the most traffic-congested corridors in Ascension Parish.

All courtesy of Councilman Aaron Lawler whose 2015 campaign platform…

included a Temporary Moratorium on New Subdivisions.  Well-played.