Decades ago, as the nation’s longest desegregation case dragged on in East Baton Rouge Parish schools, families began flocking to the lower housing cost exurbs of Ascension and Livingston parishes seeking better—and more gentrified—public schools and an escape from the escalating crime in Baton Rouge.
Yet, in a scene that’s played out hundreds of thousands of times across this country, more popularity brought more problems. As Livingston and Ascension spent a decade-plus as Louisiana’s fastest-growing parishes, officials there faced growing pressure to build-out the infrastructure and attract the retailers necessary—both in terms of services and generated sales taxes—to support the surging population. And that, too, brought problems as some, especially Baton Rouge expats, demanded tighter planning and zoning regulations, while others, particularly long-time residents, fought to maintain the “property rights trumps all” mentality especially prevalent in rural areas of the state. Complicating matters has been growing concern over the connection between these new developments and the more severe flooding occurring in both of these low-lying parishes.
The result in some quarters is a growing and deep-seated resistance to further development, resulting in grassroots efforts in both parishes to put a cap on construction. Many others acknowledge growth can’t be stopped—nor do they want it to be—but they argue far tighter rules on homebuilders and developers are needed. And then, of course, there are those hold firm in the belief that a property owner can do pretty much whatever they want with their land. What that has produced is some rather extreme proposals on both ends of the spectrum and, more importantly, a consensus on nothing.
“Because so much development is going on in Ascension and Livingston, we’re finding it more necessary to get more involved,” says Larry Bankston, executive director of the Baton Rouge Growth Coalition. “Some of the requirements being imposed are not engineering-based, but gut feelings.”
Most of the stricter requirements have their genesis in the August 2016 flood, which ravaged homes and businesses across much of south Louisiana. Especially hard-hit was Livingston Parish. Often, proponents of tougher rules compare the floodplain to a half-full glass of water, arguing when an ice cube (a new development) is dropped into the glass, it causes the surrounding water (neighbors’ floodwaters) to rise. Critics counter the proposals are an overreaction to what was a once-in-a-500-year event and further engineering studies are needed before anything is enacted.
A mix of long-standing and new challenges—including fill requirements, wetland identification, land use controversies and zoning—also come as Ascension moves forward with a new master plan, while Livingston revisits its 2013 master plan in an effort to better address drainage and zoning.
With 14,474 people moving into the parishes since 2010, everyone agrees some level of change needs to happen. But what kind of change?
FLOODED WITH REGULATIONS
Aiming to quell resident concerns about flooding, the parish councils of Ascension and Livingston have in recent months been debating limits on the amount of dirt, or fill, people use to elevate homes and other structures.
Supporters of such limits cite flood-prone subdivisions—such as Dutchtown Meadows in Ascension—where some homes are several feet higher than others. Opponents generally say fill limits not only hinder property rights, but also complicate builders’ certification requirement process and boost construction costs, since builders would have to choose different, more expensive materials.
In an effort to help lower people’s flood insurance premiums, Livingston Parish Councilman Garry “Frog” Talbert proposed an ordinance—which, as of press time, had been sent back to a committee—that would limit homebuilders to two feet of fill on lots smaller than half an acre and to three feet on larger lots, unless they could show it wouldn’t affect their neighbors in a 100-year storm.
“If we continue to let them stack dirt on the floodplain, we’re hurting older homes in the parish,” Talbert says. “Livingston is pretty diverse, so we’ll have to look at different solutions for each part of the parish. It might not be a one-size-fits-all ordinance.”
It’s already difficult to find land available to develop, builders counter, since many dry properties in Livingston—given their naturally flat topography coupled with lower areas that might hold water—have been construed as wetlands. The identification ultimately drives up the cost of development and delays the process for developers, who must go through the Army Corps of Engineers for permits.
Meanwhile, the issue has somewhat quieted in Ascension since earlier this month, when the parish council narrowly failed to override a veto by the parish president of an ordinance it had passed weeks before, which would’ve included a three-foot limit on fill for new structures and required them to be built a foot higher than current standards.
Breathing a sigh of relief is homebuilder Roy Domangue, president of Gonzales-based Wooden Creations Inc., who says the parish needs more time to study and consider engineering-based solutions.
“We’re going to need to build more homes,” Domangue says. “If it requires pier and beam construction, or stem wall construction, then let’s be smart about it, and we can make them look good.”
Still, the parish’s current system presents inconsistencies and outdated information that need to be addressed, says Melissa Kennedy, an engineer with HNTB, hired two years ago to review Ascension Parish’s floodplain management practices. Among issues: a conveyance system that goes up to the edge of channels, buffer zones and restrictive crossings that cause backwater flooding.
The Home Builders Association of Greater Baton Rouge is seeking federal and state grant dollars to fund such research, says President Karen Zito, who advocates for the region to maintain its current drainage system, dredge bodies of water that have been silted in over the years, increase flow capacity of current ditches and waterways, and develop a regional master drainage plan.
STICK TO THE PLAN
Zoning and planning efforts underway in both parishes could also mean sweeping changes for development.
In one respect, it would give Livingston Parish greater selectivity in choosing which businesses move in. The parish’s current lack of zoning requirements outside of certain municipalities has enabled its council to OK controversial projects, including a gravel company wanting to mine behind a residential subdivision in Watson and a 144-unit apartment complex located next to a single-family subdivision south of Walker.
Zoning was addressed in the parish’s 2013 master plan—Envision Livingston—though never implemented, having faced staunch opposition over the past several decades from big landowners, real estate agents and residents who don’t want government dictating what they can and can’t do with their property. But until it’s implemented, developers, businesses and homeowners worry about who’s moving in next door—a bar? Concrete mixing plant? Shooting range?—and run the risk of decreasing property values.
Significantly, the plan proposes heavy zoning restrictions for the corridor stretching east to west from U.S. 190 to Interstate 12, rich with commercial and industrial potential. In other parts of the parish, local steering committees would take local input and decide the extent to which zoning regulations would go to the planning commission.
Most decision-makers agree zoning is good for Livingston’s property values and area preservation, but disagree over whether the entire parish should be zoned. Some suggest zoning the whole parish and then giving residents the option to appeal, while others prefer keeping the rural eastern part of the parish unzoned.
“Those questions need to be answered, but it’s coming,” says Livingston Parish Councilman Shane Mack, adding he’ll take cues from residents in Albany and Holden, rural areas he represents.
Proponents argue the plan gives predictability to the development process, which would reduce the amount of individual land use controversies and attract more development.
Meanwhile, the Ascension master land use plan, created by the Center for Planning Excellence, calls for neighborhood hubs with denser mixes of housing and commerce, as the parish is projected to add more than 50,000 more people to its population in the next 25 years.
“In the future, people are going to want to have a bigger selections—not just single-family homes on larger lots,” says CPEX Director of Planning Janet Tharp, noting less-dense development styles eat up more land more quickly but accommodate fewer people.
CPEX also forecasts new growth on Ascension’s rural west bank, seeing the area as having vast potential. However, some residents fear the hubs will open the door for urban problems like crime and blight. To address concerns, Tharp says CPEX strengthened development review requirements, including transportation impact studies and offsite improvements for new developments.
Acknowledging drainage issues, the plan also recommends much less density than is currently zoned in low-lying areas outside of the levees, at just one unit per five acres.
What’s certain at this point is whatever ultimately is proposed for Ascension and Livingston will stir another round of controversy.