The Big Divide

The Big Divide

A conflict between growth and preservation pits neighbor against neighbor in struggle over West Feliciana's future.


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In a state that has more than its share of charming historic places, West Feliciana Parish is a standout. With rolling hills, breathtaking antebellum plantation homes and the historic town of St. Francisville—which in many ways feels more like New England than nearby New Roads—it is a popular weekend getaway, tourist destination and retirement community.



But as in so many charming places, West Feliciana Parish's greatest strengths are also its greatest weaknesses. The farmland is sprawling, crowds and congestion are sparse, and the town—unspoiled by big-box stores and cheesy strip centers—looks much like it did a century ago. Which means there's not much commerce or industry, not many opportunities for young people to make a living, and not much of a tax base.



It's a problem and it's getting worse, not in the least because one of the major sources of revenue in West Feliciana, Entergy's River Bend nuclear power plant, is depreciating at a rate of roughly 4% a year. As result, the ad valorem taxes the plant contributes to parish coffers keep declining. Local government has responded by jacking up property and sales taxes. But how much can you tax a small population, especially when one-third of that population comprises the non-income-producing inmates of Angola State Penitentiary?



The parish recognizes it needs to grow, if only to find new sources of revenue. Just about everyone agrees on that. The problem is, no one can agree on how best to accomplish that growth without changing the precious character of the parish. Four years ago, the parish took an important first step, developing a comprehensive plan for land use that was intended to help guide development and growth in an orderly, agreed-upon manner.



But when it came down to implementing the strategy—changing the zoning code to reflect the broad outline of the plan—the community quickly splintered. Smart growth sounds good on paper, after all. But the reality of it is far less palatable when you realize it means your farmland will be rezoned as commercial property—with its building restrictions and higher assessment rate—or that your roadside billboard has to be replaced with a discreet monument sign, or that your five acres of God's country are going to back up to a high-density subdivision of mixed-income housing.




The result is that four years later, the plan is gathering dust and development is staying away. Developers and businesses don't want to mess with a parish that doesn't want them, much less have any clearly defined regulations on how, what and where they can build. Parish residents, meanwhile, remain divided over whether they even want that development. It's a conundrum many rural communities around the country are confronting. That doesn't make it any less of a problem for West Feliciana.



“In order for things to stay the same, they have to change,” says nationally acclaimed writer Rod Dreher, who recently returned to his native West Feliciana parish after two decades. “That's the dilemma of West Feliciana. If we want to hold on to what we love about this place, we have to change.”



Pristine character

To understand West Feliciana Parish you have to understand its past. Some of the earliest European settlers to the area were British Tories, loyalists to the Crown who maintained their ties to England. In fact, the Florida Parishes—of which West Feliciana is one—were the only parishes in Louisiana ever to be under British control, however briefly. As a result, the area attracted colonists from Mississippi and other southern American states and colonies, who made up a population that resembled those areas more than it did that of Creole and Acadian south Louisiana.



Even today, that pristine, Anglo character influences the look and feel of the parish. That's particularly true in its biggest town, St. Francisville, which stands in stark contrast to fun-loving, Franco-Catholic New Roads just across the river.



“When they have a festival over there, they get out in the street and drink a lot of beer,” says St. Francisville Mayor Billy D'Aquilla. “Over here we have the pilgrimage [of historic homes]. We don't dance in the street and get drunk.”




The parish's history is also reflected in the legacy of its land ownership. A relatively small number of families and individuals—fewer than 15 by some estimates—still own the vast majority of the 273,000 acres in West Feliciana Parish. Not only does this concentrate a lot of power in the hands of a relatively small group, but it has several implications for how land is developed—or not. In some families, multiple generations of perhaps 100 or more heirs own shares in property they neither want to sell nor subdivide. They also oppose rezoning their land from rural to commercial or light industrial, which would increase their property tax assessment and impose restrictions on whether they can grow crops, tend livestock and erect multiple dwellings.



BRIGHT SPOTS

While West Feliciana Parish, faces many challenges as it tries to grow the local economy, there are a handful of bright spots. Below is a partial list.

Tourism
With more than half a dozen plantation homes, historic churches and gardens, tourism is one of West Feliciana parish's biggest industries. After a downturn that began with the 2008 recession, hotel occupancy rates in the parish in 2011 were about 30% up over 2010—and the positive trend has continued through the first half of this year. “The group market is picking up for us so we are seeing more buses in town and the international market is requesting Louisiana again,” says Lori Walsh, interim director of the West Feliciana Parish Tourism Commission. “After the recession, the hurricanes and the BP spill it's great to see so much action again.”

Paper Mill
In 2010, KPAQ Industries opened on the site of the former Renew Paper Mill, which had shut down the previous year after a series of financial problem. Landing a new paper mill to fill the vacant plant, which is south of St. Francisville, and create some 250 jobs, was a major coup for the parish and has continued to be a boon to the local economy.

New Jerusalem subdivision
Construction has begun on the first five houses in this 98-lot subdivision in Independence. The total project cost is estimated to be close to $14 million, with some 50 temporary construction jobs created in the process. More importantly, the development will bring much-needed housing to the area.

Eco-tourism complex near Angola
In the recent legislative session, state lawmakers allocated $5 million to help develop an eco-tourism complex with a zip line, hiking trails and other recreational facilities near the Tunica Hills in the northwestern part of the parish. But that's just a portion of the funding that will be needed to bring the project to fruition, which could be several years away.

The result is a firmly rooted property-rights mentality that has kept development out of all but 10% of the parish. Of that developed area, just 7% is used for industry and commerce.



“A lot of people own large pieces of property, and what they will say is, 'It's my land, I want to be able to do whatever I want on it,'” says Dr. John Godke, who works in Baton Rouge but lives in Star Hill in the southern part of the parish.



That's one reason the parish polulation has remained relatively small. Between 2000 and 2010, West Feliciana Parish grew just 3.4% to nearly 15,500 residents, or fewer than 38 persons per square mile. That makes it the second-smallest parish and one of the slowest-growing in the Capital Region, which saw double-digit growth in the 2000s. What's more, some 5,500 of those 15,500 residents are inmates at Angola. They skew the population statistics because they count as bodies but contribute no income and pay no taxes.



Another key piece of the puzzle is a shortage of affordable housing in the parish. Residential development of single-family homes accounts for just 3% of the total parish area, or about 8,000 acres. Of that, much of it is out of reach of middle income families or first-time homebuyers.



“People can't afford to live here unless they grew up with land,” says Walter Oliveaux, a lifelong resident of the parish and former police juror. “It's hard for the middle class; and if you're just starting out, forget it.”



Without a lot of people, there aren't a lot of businesses. The parish has just two grocery stores, which sit across the street from one another and are owned by the same family, and one hardware store. Then there are the antique stores and gift shops in St. Francisville, which cater to the tourists, and a dozen or so restaurants, which for the most part also survive off the business the tour buses bring.



“It's the tourists who support me,” says Betsy Pace, who estimates 75% of the diners at The Carriage House Restaurant she acquired four years ago are visitors to the parish. “We're holding steady, but it's because of tourists.”



It wasn't always so. Though West Feliciana has always been a small, rural parish, the area used to be able to sustain itself. When Ray Dreher was growing up in St. Francisville in the 1940s, the town had 53 retail establishments, by his count, including three hardware stores, a movie theater, and shops that sold apparel and furniture.



“You could actually buy clothes and shoes—whatever you needed,” says Dreher, who is Rod Dreher's father. “We used to have everything. Now all you can buy are gifts and antiques.”



The Audubon Bridge, which opened in 2011, was supposed to help change that. Connecting New Roads to St. Francisville, the $409 million span promised to bring 4,000 cars a day through West Feliciana Parish. So great were the projections, some residents fought successfully to locate the bridge access in the southern part of the parish, away from St. Francisville and the rural areas to the north. The idea was to keep the crowds—and the riffraff they bring—away from the historic town center.



Initial projections, however, suggest they needn't have worried. So far, fewer than 3,000 vehicles are crossing the bridge a day. While that may be just what some in West Feliciana would want, there's a distinct downside: What little development has been spawned by the new bridge is occurring on the west side of the river in Pointe Coupee Parish. New Roads now has a Walmart, Winn Dixie and Rotolo's Pizza. Those businesses are aggressively marketing to potential customers across the river.



“When the new bridge opened, Point Coupee started sending us flyers advertising stuff we didn't even know was over there,” says Oliveaux, whose family owns the iconic Roadside Barbecue on U.S. 61. “I work in Zachary, so I do my shopping down there. But my parents, they go across the river all the time. That's where they spend their money.”



The nuclear plant

That diversion of consumers is more a problem now than ever because of the depreciation of Entergy's River Bend nuclear power plant, which was built on the river in the southern side of the parish in 1986. In the quarter of a century since, it has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes to West Feliciana, to say nothing of the economic activity generated by its employees, and it accounts for 70% of the parish's tax revenue. After Angola, Riverbend is the second-largest employer in the parish.



MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

Economic development officials say West Feliciana Parish has missed out on potential opportunities to attract new business and industry due to its lack of a comprehensive land use plan—and the necessary infrastructure that could be developed from such a plan. Below are some projects that West Feliciana missed out on.

Chemical company expansion
A major chemical company with operations in the region needs a 200-acre site with deep water draft access. The project would create 60 full time jobs and exceed $1 billion in capital expenditures. Site selection will be made in June. West Feliciana was not included for consideration because of the lack of deep water draft accommodations.

Chemical Company expansion
An international chemical company needs a site between 200 and 300 acres with deepwater draft access. The $1.2 billion project will create 250 full time jobs. Again, West Feliciana was not included for consideration because of lack of deep water draft accommodations

Sand processing company expansion
A company is looking for site with port, rail and existing building availability for new processing plant and shipping facility. Discussions were under way with a venture investor, a railroad and a local business organization for land lease. But deal went to Greenville, Miss, which had the necessary infrastructure and offered more incentives.

Source: Dennis Manshack, West Feliciana Parish Economic Development director

But River Bend is depreciating at a rate of roughly 4% a year. As a result, its assessment is decreasing, as is by extension, the amount of property taxes it has to pay. Between 2010 and 2011, for instance, its depreciation resulted in nearly half a million dollars less for the parish. That may not sound like a lot in the large scheme of things—until you consider that between 1997, the first year the plant was taxed, and 2011, its taxes decreased 33%, even though the parish's millage rate increased during that period.



“Over 10 years that's a 40% depreciation,” Oliveaux says. “There are two ways you can solve it: cut your budget or create new income.”



The solution in West Feliciana Parish has been to keep raising taxes. In the past two years, voters have approved three new sales and property tax increases to fund schools, libraries and general operations. In April, voters approved a 10.5-mill increase, bringing the total millage rate to 81. In the same election they also approved a sales tax hike, which brings the parish rate to 9%, the highest amount allowed by law.



Economic development officials have also gotten serious about trying to attract new business and industry to the area. In 2006 the parish got a $250,000 grant, with assistance from U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu's office, to put together a comprehensive land-use plan for growth and development. The plan was done by consultant John Fregonese, with help from the Center for Planning Excellence and input from parish residents, who had an opportunity to share their vision for the future of West Feliciana Parish. Economic development officials say it was and still is an essential piece to the puzzle of attracting badly needed economic development.



“The biggest challenge we have here in West Feliciana Parish is that none of the land is zoned properly for development,” says Dennis Manshack, who recently took over as director of the West Feliciana Economic Development Board. “It's all zoned rural farmland and that's what this plan is supposed to address: how to zone the major corridors properly for development.”



The plan essentially envisions keeping the vast majority of the parish rural and maintaining the historic character of St. Francisville. It's also clear on how and where development should be located; it calls for concentrating 80% of the parish's future development in the southern part of the parish, while ensuring there is sufficient infrastructure to serve the area. Commercial development would be concentrated along the corridor leading to the new bridge, and also along U.S. 61. Meanwhile, strict new guidelines would determine the size, shape, and design of stores and strip centers built along retail corridors—even down to the type of signage that business owners could erect.



The plan got its first test about a year after its 2008 completion, when a group of developers led by the parish's then-economic development director, Steve Jones, tried to come into the parish with a mixed-income, high-density subdivision called the Villages of Columbia. It would have been located in Star Hill, the southern part of the parish, and would have seemingly done just what the plan called for: provided the area with badly needed housing in an area that was well-suited for such a development.



But residents fought the project with a passion and effectiveness that took many by surprise, and the developers walked away. Godke, whose property would have been next to the development, helped lead the opposition and says there were several legitimate problems. Among them: The density was too high, infrastructure in the area was inadequate, and the developers had a spotty reputation with a history of problem projects in other areas.



“I'm not opposed to having development in the southern part of the parish,” he says. “It's clearly going to happen … but Villages of Columbia is clearly not what I would define as a responsible development.”



Others, however, characterize the opposition as classic NIMBYism.



“Every single person wants to be able to do what they want with their land,” says police juror Mel Percy. “Then they want to tell you what to do with your land.”



Getting a plan

While the comprehensive plan proved controversial, the effort to actually change the zoning code to comply with the plan has been outright divisive. The effort has revolved around the Land Use Tool Kit, a turnkey product created by CPEX to help guide parishes around the state through the process of implementing land-use plans.



“You can have the best land-use plan you ever wanted, but if you don't have implementation you're dead,” says Elizabeth “Boo” Thomas, executive director of CPEX.



West Feliciana was supposed to pilot the use of the tool kit for CPEX, and the organization spent countless hours in the parish, holding town hall meetings with participation from what Thomas describes as a good cross section of the community.



“It was the most diverse participation on any issue that West Feliciana has ever had,” she says. “We felt, because there was so much interest and support from the elected officials, it would be a parish where you could go through a process of going through the code and making sure it fit.”



But when residents realized just what implementing the plan would entail, they began to pick it apart, piece by piece. There has been opposition to rezoning rural land to allow for light industrial or commercial development, not in the least because land zoned for agriculture is assessed at a lower tax rate than commercially zoned property. There has been opposition to restrictions on how many houses can sit on sites zoned rural. There has also been widespread opposition to requirements about signage and landscaping along commercial corridors.



“They came up with rules about a green belt along Highway 61 that say you have to have monument signs and only certain kinds of trees and so much distance between your building and the highway,” Oliveaux says. “Instead of trying to make reasonable rules, they were trying to make this Austin, Texas, or Madison, Mississippi.”



Police juror Lea Williams agrees, and she and Oliveaux don't agree on much. Both longtime residents and community activists, they're frequently at odds over which direction to take the parish. But she, too, sees lots of problems with the tool kit.



“What was being presented is not what we need,” Williams says. “It was this big map dotted urban versus rural, and we had all this language about how big your porch had to be and how big a pad your boat had to be on. … It was foolish.”



The Austin-based consultant who was hired to help implement the tool kit concedes there were problems. He doesn't believe the tool kit—or the level of specificity in it—is to blame, however. Rather, he attributes the difficulties to fundamental disagreements over the comprehensive plan and how best to grow the parish.



“The community as a whole was fairly divided, and it was definitely a divide and conquer kind of thing,” says Lee Einsweiler of Code Studio. “Nothing was really possible, given the fact that there was fundamental disagreement about land-use intensities.”



A ticking clock

West Feliciana Parish is not alone in its internal struggle over how to remain rural and broaden its tax base at the same time. Einsweiler sees it all the time in his work around the country. Bay Town, Texas, near Houston, has experienced similar challenges. So have communities closer to home, and even different parts of Baton Rouge, where fundamental questions over land use divide neighbors and friends.



The problem for West Feliciana Parish is that the clock is ticking in the race to broaden the tax base. Some, like Oliveaux, believe the best opportunities for the parish lie in the industrial development that could follow the hydraulic fracturing boom, much of which is happening in the Felicianas and nearby. Others, like D'Aquilla, the St. Francisville mayor, believe West Feliciana would be better served trying to attract small, high-tech companies that employ 100 or so people, rather than going after one, big industry.



“It makes more sense than to put all our eggs in one basket,” D'Aquilla says.



Economic development officials are trying to do a little bit of both. Manshack, the economic development director, is particularly interested in building on the parish's strong tourism base by expanding into ecotourism. It would seem a natural fit, given the parish's lush scenery and natural resources. He is encouraged that the Legislature has appropriated $5 million for a zip-line attraction at a proposed recreational area in Tunica Hills. He would also like to expand the parish's sports park in northern St. Francisville.



“Since they don't want smokestacks inside the parish, my thinking is we can expand our sports park, build walking trails, biking trails,” he says, adding that opportunities abound to develop upscale resorts, spa retreats and quality retirement communities.



But those kinds of employers don't create plentiful jobs for the middle class and professionals. Those come from major industry, whatever type it might be. Without a good land-use plan and current zoning regulations that allow for development, those industries will continue to stay away.



“What people need to understand is that [not having a plan with corresponding zoning code] means a loss of growth, loss of jobs and industry,” says Thomas at CPEX. “Without regulations, when a multimillion dollar industry wants to come and has no idea what kind of opposition they're going to encounter, a valid and comprehensive land-use plan provides you with regulation and guidance. You know it's not just a good-old-boy network that determines how you do things.”



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