What would Ricky Compton do? 780 lot subdivision approval evidence of “looming disaster”

With Ricky Compton’s unceremonious (and clandestine) ouster as Ascension’s planning director the last vestige of resistance to development interests was eradicated from Parish President Kenny Matassa’s administration.  His campaign championed “new taxpayers” and Riverton, a 780-lot subdivision on Hwy 22 in Darrow, delivers.  One engaged (and enraged) citizen, distressed by what he deems a “looming disaster,” wondered “What would Ricky Compton do?”

“I’ve attended a lot of Planning meetings and I’ve never seen our parish president,” Jeff Pettit said.  “But there he was, President Matassa showed up to ensure all went smooth for Riverton which is going to add nearly 800 new rooftops to the nearly 6,000 already in the development pipeline.”

Left to right: District 2 Councilman Bill Dawson, President Matassa, Traffic Engineer Nick Ferlito, Ascension CAO Ken Dawson, and Billy "the Mississippi Builder" Aguillard

Left to right: District 2 Councilman Bill Dawson, President Matassa, Traffic Engineer Nick Ferlito, Ascension CAO Ken Dawson, and Billy “the Mississippi Builder” Aguillard

And Pettit’s concerns run much deeper than “one more subdivision.” He warned of the “appearance of impropriety” during his allotted three minutes for public comment at last week’s Planning meeting.  Prior to the meeting Quality Engineering & Surveying personnel were witnessed in the meeting room’s antechamber, along with commissioners and members of the Matassa administration.

“I don’t think anybody was meeting with any commissioners,” Planning Chairman Matt Pryor explained. “I think it was trying to work out issues with the engineering staff.”

Moments before Planning meeting: Commissioners Morrie Bishop and Edward Dudley in foreground while Quality's Deric Murphy, interim Planning Director Lance Brock, and individual believed to be Commissioner Julio Dumas confer.

Moments before Planning meeting: Commissioners Morrie Bishop and Edward Dudley in foreground while Quality’s Deric Murphy, interim Planning Director Lance Brock, and individual believed to be Commissioner Julio Dumas confer.

Which is the crux of Jeff Pettit’s concerns.  Those engineering “issues” should have been worked out prior to Wednesday’s hearing on Riverton’s preliminary plat, not moments before the meeting, and not without public notification and input.

“What issues, exactly, were being worked out mere minutes before Wednesday’s meeting?” Pettit wants to know. “The traffic impact study for Riverton, apparently, was revised and broken up into four phases but the public was never notified…and neither was the parish traffic engineer.”

Traffic Engineer Bob Turner recommended denial of Riverton because “the Traffic Impact Study didn’t tell me what the phases were.”  Turner’s findings were based on “the entire build out” of Riverton’s 780 lots.

“Phase I, which I learned about just today, 77 lots is not a concern to me,” offered Turner last Wednesday.

Bob Turner was not the only one confused by Riverton’s plat application.  Quality’s Deric Murphy claimed it would be built in ten filings over the next ten years.

“Of course, market will drive that time line,” Murphy said.

Ultimately, the plat was approved contingent on another traffic study being performed after 213 lots are developed (what the un-reviewed traffic study deemed Phase I, which falls somewhere between Riverton’s 2nd and 3rd filings).

Which resolved, exactly, none of Jeff Pettit’s concerns.  He argued that, effectively, no traffic study has been submitted or reviewed with regard to those 213 lots.  He insisted that the preliminary plat should have been refiled due to the inability of parish engineers to review this new information.

The plat approval was also made contingent on numerous drainage comments being addressed.

“And who’s going to ensure that second traffic study is ever done?  I mentioned the perception of back room dealing during Wednesday’s meeting but they’re not even trying to hide it now,” Pettit took a cue from Quality, revising his public comment.  “If Riverton is approved, with all of its issues, just what will it take for this Planning Commission to deny a preliminary plat?”

Jeff Pettit (r) with Kathryn Goppelt.  They tied for 9th when the Council's Personnel Committee ranked 17 applicants for Planning last month.

Jeff Pettit (r) with Kathryn Goppelt. They tied for 9th when the Council’s Personnel Committee ranked 17 applicants for Planning last month.

“What would Ricky Compton have done on Wednesday?” Pettit wondered.  “I can’t imagine he would have remained silent throughout the Planning discussion like his replacement did.”

Pettit believes Compton’s willingness to defy Quality Engineering was, if not the reason for his firing, a factor. Deric Murphy was appointed to President Matassa’s transition team in December, a month before his January 4 inauguration.  Pettit pointed to $10,000 in campaign contributions from Murphy-owned companies, including Quality to further justify his concerns.

“And why did President Matassa appear when Riverton was taken up; and leave as soon as it was approved?” Pettit asked.  “Every soul in the meeting room took notice when our president sat down, looking over the shoulder of the parish drainage and traffic engineers.”

He insisted that Matassa “owes the people of Ascension Parish a reason for terminating Planning Director Ricky Compton on March 4 while the president and most of the Parish Council were out of town at a conference.” According to Pettit, Compton has “bucked the development community” in the attempt to put “meaningful procedures in place” which might protect against unfettered development or generate some means to fund infrastructure improvements.

In mid-2015 Compton negotiated impact fees with one developer and former parish president, Tommy Martinez, threatened to fire him for his trouble.  The Matassa administration, interestingly enough, negotiated impact fees from Riverton’s developer.

In September Compton’s staff recommended denying three subdivisions writing:

“Until efforts are made by the Parish Council to address the explosive growth in the Parish, and the un-encumbered impact major subdivision development has on the regions traffic and sewer infrastructure, at this time the staff cannot recommend approval as it is inconsistent with the Parish’s Master Plan.”

Planning Director Ricky Compton after February 10 Planning meeting

Planning Director Ricky Compton after February 10 Planning meeting

He drafted an ordinance to extend the period available for staff to review impact studies, which was enacted by the Parish Council earlier this year.  In December 2015 Compton proposed a new ordinance to assess a fee from developers so that Ascension Parish could hire firms to conduct those studies.  It was tabled at that month’s Planning Commission meeting, and has yet to be revived.

The former planning director has not taken a stance on the Parish Council’s pursuit of traffic impact fees by ordinance, but he has spoken on the manner of implementation.  The development community has mounted a vigorous defense against those fees.

Compton’s department recommended denial of a subdivision preliminary plat last month and, lo and behold, a four-member, lame-duck Planning Commission followed the recommendation.  According to Jeff Pettit it was the first such denial in five years “even though Compton has recommended denial of several subdivision plats.”

“Not coincidentally, that subdivision on Parker Rd was engineered by Quality,” Pettit pointed out. “Every plat submitted in 2016 has been represented by the same company.  Given Quality’s ties to our parish president, it makes sense to use them if you want to develop a subdivision.”

Beiriger emailOn February 24 Quality’s Jared “Burger” Beiriger penned a threatening email to Compton who had just informed Quality that another subdivision had failed its final inspection.  Nine days later the planning director was terminated.

“Coincidence?” wondered Jeff Pettit.  “President Matassa has said nothing to make me believe so.”

Ricky Compton has appealed his termination and the matter could be included on Thursday’s Parish Council meeting agenda.

 

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