Promising public meetings jump start planning effort

Wade McIntyre
John Scanlan of Gesimar, left, and Lance Brock with the Ascension Parish Planning Department were among the approximately 50 persons taking part in a public meeting Monday in Gonzales that solicited public input on development of the Ascension Parish Comprehensive Plan. The woman at right is unidentified.

Ascension Parish wants feedback on how government can control parish growth patterns rather than merely being a recipient of what a legacy of hodge-podge growth has to offer.

To further that goal, about 50 people took part in an interactive public meeting Monday night at the DPW auditorium in Gonzales, the first of three sessions held this week soliciting input on development of the Ascension Parish Comprehensive Plan.

The meeting featured a multimedia presentation by Jeff Winston of  Boulder, Colo. firm Winston Associates hired by the parish to develop a blueprint for smarter growth in Ascension over the next quarter of a century.

Winston captured the group’s attention with a “key pad polling” exercise that collectively asked attendees a series of questions they could answer simultaneously on distributed keypads. The answers were flashed on screen in percentages. For example, 39 percent of the respondents said they had lived in the parish more than 30 years, and 29 percent said their daily commute to work takes up to 30 minutes.

One question produced a surprising result that could be interpreted in different ways. When queried where they spend most shopping money other than that going to groceries, 66 percent said it was spent at parish businesses.

Ascension Chamber of Commerce President Sherry Despino said after the session that the large number of in-parish shoppers was a factor of convenience. “We need to continue broadening our economic base so we don’t have to travel outside the parish,” she said.

Parish Librarian Angelle Deshautelles said Wednesday she also shops within the parish and was not surprised to see 2/3 of the meeting’s respondents do so as well.

But, Parish Councilman Chris Loar during the session expressed surprise at the high number of in-parish shoppers.  He represents Prairieville, an area closer to Baton Rouge shopping venues, where residents may indeed shop more frequently out of Ascension.

On the major issue on everyone’s mind, 84 percent of the key pad punchers said parish growth should be more regulated. Twenty-four percent said the condition of roads was their biggest growth concern, and 27 percent said roads and infrastructure was the second biggest concern.

When asked what should be the highest priority of the parish over the next 10 years, 57 percent said improved roads and infrastructure.

“Everybody agrees we need more connecting highways,” Despino said. “We can’t put in more housing without more roads.”

After the keypad session, attendees gathered up in small groups covered with tabletop maps of Ascension Parish and banks of small chips that represented different kinds of development in the area.

With a goal of helping decide how Ascension will deal with an estimated 100,000 new residents by the year 2030, participants traded their chips to alter building density and use of the limited land still available in the parish.

Deshautelles said she was impressed with the way Winston Associates plans to take the data and overlay the results on computer to come up with alternative options that will eventually be presented in another series of public meetings within the year.

It was interesting, she said, to see how all the groups understood the value of the parish industrial corridor on the Mississippi River and the value of the buffer zone between the plant and residential areas.

“It was an interesting concept and a lot of feedback was obtained,” she said. “I liked that they will take the planning they have done in the past and try to incorporate it into the new plan.”

The public meetings continued Tuesday in Geismar at the Geismar Community Center and Wednesday in Donaldsonville at Lowery Elementary School.

Parish Planning & Development Director Ricky Compton said the process will help the parish understand directions citizens want government to take planning new growth in the parish.

Parish President Tommy Martinez, who was also in attendance Monday, was pleased with the initial meeting and thanked those who turned out.