GONZALES — A homeowners association and three Ascension Parish residents known collectively as Concerned Citizens of Prairieville have asked a state district judge to halt the final step necessary to approve the 172-home Jamestown Crossing subdivision.
In a lawsuit, the plaintiffs accuse the Ascension Parish Planning Commission of violating a parish prohibition on building new subdivisions that empty onto roads narrower than 18 feet wide when commissioners approved the Prairieville-area subdivision May 9 amid strong neighborhood opposition.
A slender 4-3 majority on the seven-member Planning Commission backed the neighborhood that would be split in half by La. 930, a narrow state highway that residents at the time complained doesn't have enough width for vehicles to easily pass one another.
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One of the project’s two phases would empty directly onto La. 930, just south of La. 42. The other phase would have its entrance on nearby Parker Road, which is around the corner from La. 930, but the plaintiffs contend the exit would still result in heavy use of La. 930.
The plaintiffs want the court to block the commission from approving its minutes when it meets on June 13, a legal formality that would clear the way for the subdivision to move forward.
Filed late Tuesday afternoon in 23rd Judicial District Court, the suit also launches another salvo in Ascension's battle over growth and infrastructure, even as parish consultants held public hearings this week to revise the parish's comprehensive land use plan, essentially an outline about how the parish should grow over the next few decades.
Since 2009, Ascension was the third-fastest growing parish in Louisiana, adding nearly 18,000 people, and the fastest growing outside the New Orleans area, census estimates show. Projections shared by the master plan consultants this week suggest the parish could add 65,000 more people and 25,000 new houses over the next 25 years.
Jamestown Crossing is one of several new housing developments earmarked for a section of Prairieville where other new neighborhoods have run into strong opposition in recent years but also where La. 42, a key east-west corridor, is being widened by the state.
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Even before the lawsuit, the subdivision already contributed to some political turmoil in Ascension. Jamestown Crossing would be built on land owned by Parish Councilwoman Teri Casso and her family members, including former parish official Beth James.
Casso has said she has stayed out of the subdivision review and approval to avoid any ethics conflict and let family members decide what to do with their collectively inherited property, farm and pasture land just south of La. 42.
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But when Councilman Daniel "Doc" Satterlee shared a video from a website intimating wrongdoing in the project, Casso and fellow Councilman Aaron Lawler, both of whom have sparred with Satterlee over other matters, resigned from his Strategic Planning Committee last month. Casso accused Satterlee of "cyber bullying" by sharing the video.
Satterlee, chairman of the committee, has defended sharing the video on his Facebook page and said he was "a bit offended" by the mischaracterization of what he did. He said he will move forward with his committee.
At the same time, Commissioner Wade Schexnaydre said Tuesday the suit could finally bring to a head an ongoing philosophical dispute about the commission’s power to block projects over concerns about insufficient infrastructure.
While other projects in the same area as Jamestown Crossing have initially been denied by the commission — though they were later approved through internal parish appeals — those denials focused on insufficiencies some commissioners saw in those projects’ drainage and traffic impact analyses.
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In the case of Jamestown Crossing, the plaintiffs allege the commission violated parish ordinance.
"My stance is that it is unfortunate that a suit had to be filed, but the fortunate aspect is we are going to find out what” our traffic and drainage rules really are, what the commission’s power actually is and “where we stand,” Schexnaydre said Tuesday.
Schexnaydre, who said he was not critiquing his fellow commissioners’ decision to back the subdivision and who had opposed Jamestown Crossing last month, was not named in the suit.
Before approval last month, parish engineers measured the width of La. 930 and found it averaged 17.3 feet around Jamestown Crossing, well below the 18-foot-wide threshold in the parish ordinance.
In some places, the state highway is less than 17 feet wide. In others, the state highway is slightly wider than 18 feet, parish officials told commissioners in the May 9 hearing.
A central thrust of the argument from the plaintiffs is that big new subdivisions on substandard roads are all too common in Ascension and so aren't the special circumstance that would serve as the necessary grounds for the variance the commission granted to allow Jamestown Crossing.
"Granting of a variance must show unique circumstances," the lawsuit says. "Plaintiffs submit that a subdivision exiting onto a substandard road in Ascension Parish is not a unique circumstance that warrants granting of a variance."
That claim also turns on its head the argument last month of Commission Chairman Matt Pryor, who supported the variance for Jamestown Crossing. He argued the parish has approved other subdivisions on La. 930 in the past and so, by precedent, they were bound to approve Jamestown Crossing or risk a lawsuit from the developer.
But, in supporting the variance, the commission majority also directed the developer to widen narrow sections of La. 930 to 18 feet.
The suit names as defendants the Planning Commission collectively and, individually, the four volunteer commissioners in the majority, Pryor, Julio Dumas, Morrie Bishop and Ken Firmin. The suit also names as a defendant Councilman Bill Dawson, the Parish Council chairman.
The plaintiffs are the Quail Creek Homeowners Association, and parish residents Caroline Watson, Kimberly Christy and Jeff Pettit.
Kyle Gautreau, a parish government spokesman, declined to comment on pending litigation.
Ross Bruce, one of the principals in Dantin Bruce Development, the developer of Jamestown Crossing, also declined to comment Tuesday, saying he had not yet see the lawsuit. The developer has not been named in the lawsuit.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.