Ascension Parish Council votes for nine-month moratorium on development

Michael Tortorich

After an hours-long meeting that ended close to midnight, the Ascension Parish Council voted to approve a nine-month moratorium on new developments June 17 at the courthouse in Gonzales.

The Ascension Parish Council concluded a late-night meeting by voting 9-2 for a nine-month moratorium on new developments.

The controversial issue drew numerous residents frustrated by flooding and traffic, as well as individuals affiliated with the building industry. About 40 people signed up to speak during the public hearing.

Parish President Clint Cointment expressed his frustration with the council’s decision, as he originally asked for a 12-month moratorium.

In the tense final moments before the council voted, Cointment turned to the residents in the audience and spoke directly to them.

“I just want to make sure everybody knows. I don’t want to be associated with failure. If this is going to be the council’s plan, it’s going to be on the council to do it. I will not - that’s why I asked for a vote of mine up or down. When I set myself to do something, I’m going to achieve it. I’m telling you the time frame I need to achieve it and it is 12 months or less,” the president said.

The vote to approve as amended to nine months passed 9-2 with council members Joel Robert and Michael Mason voting against it. After the vote, the council adjourned.

In speaking with reporters after the meeting, Cointment said the council is pro-development.

“Until you change these people, you will not have change in Ascension Parish,” he said.

Widely-shared video clips captured by members of the media show Cointment arguing with District 4 council member Corey Orgeron after Orgeron walks up to the president during the interview and interrupts.

“Y’all think they come to these meetings and listen to the people. All of this was orchestrated before we even got here,” Cointment said prior to the incident.

Cointment went on to say the nine-month change was “so they can try and save face.”

“This will be a failure,” he said.

Neighboring Iberville Parish, along with Tangipahoa Parish, officials have been “listening to their residents” and taking action to have “responsible growth,” Cointment added. The Iberville Parish Council approved a 12-month moratorium on new subdivisions for the unincorporated areas of the east bank outside of St. Gabriel.

“We have a three-year backlog in lots. That’s just subdivision lots. That’s not including individual lots in the unincorporated areas. The municipalities you can go and work and build whatever,” he said.

Ascension Parish’s two cities, Donaldsonville and Gonzales, and its town, Sorrento, are not affected by the moratorium.

As Cointment reiterated that he thought the nine-month halt would be a failure, Orgeron sidled up to the president.

“Dig our ditches…” Orgeron said.

“Get out of the way!” Cointment interjected.

“Dredge our canals,” Orgeron continued.

After a back-and-forth exchange, a reporter asked Orgeron to speak after the interview.

“These are the challenges I have every day,” Cointment said to reporters. “This is what I fight against just to get things done.”

“I can tell you. This is a pro-development council. It was voted that way tonight,” he said.

In further questioning, Cointment recalled how decades ago parish residents rose up to tackle flooding issues.

“That was the Sandbaggers Association, which my dad was the president of. That was Mr. (Howard) Epps, Doc Bryant, Marvin Braud - you know what they did to get it done? They went out and elected their own six police jurymen. And then that got the vote to pass the tax for drainage and build the pumping station.”

In discussion prior to voting on the amended moratorium, Mason said he counted 31 public speakers in favor of the 12-month version, and nine against.

“I feel like if we do less than 12 months, we are letting people down,” Mason said.

Prior to that, the council voted 7-4 to pass the amendment of nine months for the moratorium. Mason, Robert, Orgeron, and Alvin “Coach” Thomas voted no.

They then voted on the substitute council version as amended to nine months. It passed 7-4 with Robert, Mason, Chase Melancon, and Travis Turner voting against.

Robert made a motion to amend from nine months to 12 months. It failed 8-3. Robert, Melancon and Mason voted for it.

Earlier, Robert said he never wanted to be a politician, but about two years ago he decided to stand up for his community.

“Ascension Parish owes developers nothing. What we do owe is our constituents and our people a piece of mind that we’re going to stick up for them and stand up for them,” Robert said.

In a Facebook post over the weekend, Orgeron said the council offered a six-month proposal, then increased it to nine months “in an effort to compromise” and work with the administration.

Cointment also released a statement through his Facebook page the following day. 

“This approved nine-month mortarium was created, written, and planned entirely by the council. No input was requested from me or my administration,” Cointment stated.

He went on to point out his plan to go on a “listening tour” to gather input from citizens.

“If this council wants to re-engage the administration on doing a 12-month mortarium and come up with a timetable and expectation of goals, the administration is always willing to work with them. But, make no mistake, the ball is in their court. Their decision, not mine, will determine the outcome of this mortarium,” Cointment concluded.

During the public hearing at the courthouse, several speakers used their three minutes to vent their frustrations over flooding and traffic issues.

“We feel for these people, but what about us?” Debbie Kidder asked, referring to individuals in the building industry. “Y’all come in and build, and build and build, and build, and we flood, and flood, and flood.”

Brenda Whitney, an administrator for the popular Facebook group “What’s Going On In Ascension Parish,” said if parish voters were asked to decide on the moratorium it would “pass in a landslide.”

Aaron Chiasson of the planning commission said a pause on the subdivision of property is needed.

“If your boat is sinking, you stop putting people in the boat long enough to fix the hole,” Chiasson said.

Many of the builders in attendance wore red shirts as a sign of solidarity. Some argued the halt in new developments would have an economic impact on the area, and end up affecting other industries.

Amid a hot housing market, home buyers would have to look into developing properties outside of the parish, some argued.

Bart Waguespack, a local builder, said smaller developers contend with larger developers for lots. Smaller builders may work on five to 15 houses per year.