Attorney: Ascension Parish can legally enact development moratorium

Michael Tortorich

In opening the June 3 Ascension Parish Council meeting, Chair Teri Casso said it was fitting that the courthouse roof would be leaking.

Ascension Parish Council members Dempsey Lambert, Aaron Lawler, and Teri Casso listen to a speaker during the June 3 meeting at the courthouse in Donaldsonville.

She was referring to the heavy rains causing problems throughout the parish over recent weeks, followed by the nuisance of dripping rain water during the first meeting of the month.

In discussing the moratorium on development, Parish Attorney Kenneth Dupaty said the parish has the authority to enact it, as long as it is specific, time-limited, and meets the goals it sets.

While addressing the council at the courthouse in Donaldsonville, Dupaty told members he researched similar cases in other areas of Louisiana.

He cited moratoriums set by the City of Slidell and St. Tammany Parish. Dupaty also referenced a state Attorney General opinion on the matter.

“As long as the moratorium meets the criteria, it is legal,” Dupaty said.

The council is expected to vote on a 12-month moratorium on new development outside of the parish’s three municipalities. It was introduced during the May council meeting in Gonzales.

In late May, heavy rains moved through south Louisiana, and caused widespread flooding issues. It was during that time that Parish President Clint Cointment announced his plan to call for a moratorium.

Several parish residents voiced their support during the May council meeting in Gonzales. Denise Drago, who has been among the vocal supporters both at meetings and online, continued the push in favor of the moratorium at the Donaldsonville meeting. 

“Drainage is one of the most important issues the people of Ascension are facing,” Drago said. “This needs to be addressed and resolved before any new developments are approved. We hope all of you will represent all of us as you were elected to do, and be the voice of the people of Ascension Parish, and not the developers.”

Opposition has come from the building industry. During the Gonzales meeting in May, two speakers who said they are in the industry spoke against the move.

In questioning the parish attorney, District 4’s Corey Orgeron asked if the moratorium allows the government “to pick winners and losers.”

“As long as it can be shown that it meets the health, safety, morals, convenience, etc., then I think it is allowed,” Dupaty said.

In other matters:

-- Cointment praised the parish’s Department of Public Works employees for their hard work during the recent flooding.

An anonymous donor treated the employees to a meal at the St. Amant Fire Station, the president said.

“I want to thank our parish employees for all that they do, day in, and day out,” Cointment said.

-- District 1’s Alvin “Coach” Thomas said he has been “very disappointed” in his first 15 months serving with the council.

In discussing billing for Parish Utilities of Ascension and Ascension Consolidated Utilities District 1, he said one customer received an $18,000 bill where there was no water. It was later cut to $2,100, he added.

After being told by Gavin Fleming of utilities that the matter is under investigation, Thomas asked why he had to bring it to the council to get an answer.

Thomas said he has been disrespected, and has “had enough of it.”

“You have one of the best parishes in the state of Louisiana. You have your leader, who doesn’t want to communicate,” Thomas said.

“Point of order,” District 2’s Joel Robert interjected.

“Are you...are you finished, Mr. Thomas?” Casso asked timidly, after being asked by Thomas not to interrupt at the beginning of the item.

When Chief Administrative Officer John Diez approached the mic to speak, Thomas said, “Diez ain’t the president. Diez...not the president. The people elected the president to do his job.”

Diez said he spoke to Thomas three times the day before, but was not made aware about water service billing issues. He added he and Thomas have been working to address early childhood education.

“We’ve literally had three conversations yesterday,” Diez said. “You want to talk about communication? Nobody informed me that they were even requesting anything about this audit. Somebody came into my office and said, ‘Dude, what’s this about?’ I had no idea.”

After a back-and-forth, Chair Teri Casso asked: “Are we ready to move on, gentlemen?”

Thomas then asked Council Secretary Cinnamon McKey to hand an envelope to Cointment.

-- The council approved the bid of the Gonzales Weekly Citizen as the official journal.