City Council upholds Planning and Zoning decision


No subdivision on St. Maurice Lane just yet

By Carolyn Roy,

City Councilman Eddie Harrington summed up the controversy over rezoning for a proposed subdivision on St. Maurice Lane. It’s about the character of the development that doesn’t fit the surrounding homes on Williams Avenue and in College Park. Harrington was one of three councilmen who voted to uphold a City Planning and Zoning Commission decision to deny the application by the Justin Rhodes during a special called City Council meeting Friday morning, Sept. 13.

The meeting was to consider an appeal by Rhodes. Don Mims and Dale Nielsen joined Harrington in voting to uphold the denial while Sylvia Morrow voted to overturn it. Lawrence Batiste was not at the meeting. Rhodes’ request was to subdivide 7 acres in St. Maurice Place into 28 lots for singe-family residences. He sought variances of 10 feet of the required 25-foot front and rear building setbacks and location of utilities.

The application asked for a private, gated street, 50 feet wide instead of the 60 feet required by a City ordinance. The 50-foot street right-of-way would have been owned by a homeowners association with a hold-harmless agreement that the City would not be responsible for damages associated with maintenance of utilities. Anything less than 60 feet is considered a variance. Water and sewer lines would be within the 50 feet of the road but in this case, electrical utilities would be within each lot’s property line.

For a street to receive City maintenance, it must be at least 60 feet wide and cannot be gated. As for Harrington’s remarks about the character of the development, it referred to lot size of just over 8,000 square feet as compared to an average of just over 16,000 square feet per lot for the surrounding neighborhoods. The small meeting room was nearly full by 8:30 a.m., before the 9 a.m. meeting. The sidewalk outside the building was crowded with supporters of Rhodes who were his company employees.

Some 17 people who live in the area asked the council to deny the appeal on numerous grounds including potential for flooding, heavy traffic and mosquito borne illnesses. Several complained of inadequate drainage and flooding during past rains, the last one in April. It was described by one resident as a disaster in the making. “Maintain what we have,” one person said. Ralph Ingram, behind whose property the proposed St. Maurice Place is located, presented exhibits to the council showing frequently flooded areas in the City including East Fifth Street and areas near Natchitoches Regional Medical Center.

He said the planning and zoning commission and City Council had turned down a request for subdivision of property behind Ledet Street because it floods. He characterized the development as “cramming” because of the requested variances and asked who would maintain a detention pond to catch flood water. He also had concern for historic oak trees on the property that he said would die.

Steven Busbee, who lives on Nettie Street, said that school traffic in that area was already a battle. Rhodes said that the subdivision met the City requirements, provided a green space and was within walking distance to town. He hired engineers who developed plans with a drainage analysis and City engineer Nick Verrett concurred with those plans. As for density, the 7,200 square foot lots requirement of the City ordinance was met or exceeded with his proposal. He said there were no issues with City department heads with whom he had met. His arguments included in increase in sales and property tax and employment for a lot of people.

Speaking for the project were Rhodes engineer Donnie Barker, Rhodes realtors Rod McIntosh, John Bernard and Michelle Todtenbier; and an NSU student who is a receptionist for Rhodes, subcontractor Joseph Townsend and materials supplier Kyle Martinez of Zwolle. Rhodes concluded by saying he had made several concessions to show he was willing to work with the City. It was then time for the council members to give their responses.

Morrow said she had been against a similar proposal in 2007 and had voted against it then because the City had denied developer Darrel Walker’s request to build an apartment at the end of St. Maurice Lane. She said that now she had a good concept of St. Maurice Place and voted to overturn the appeal. Harrington, in whose council district the property is located, said that he had never had so many calls, text, emails and mail about any project since he had been on the council—-including the brewery, Interstate 49 sales tax and Cane River bridge on Williams Avenue.

He said that while the development might meet City codes, it did not meet a second test, that of character, and the small lot size compared to the existing neighborhoods. He was also concerned that the lots did not front on a public street, a code requirement. Mims concurred with Harrington that he had received more input than on any other issue. “If the road was adequate, no one would be here,” Mims said. He was also concerned that there were drainage problems that needed to be addressed. Nielsen, too, was concerned about the number of lots and the density problem.

He said he was not a fan of private drives and didn’t think they were in the best interest of the City. He also said during heavy rains there was a lot of water to deal with. Nielsen said that when plans for the area were first submitted by another developer in 2007, the City had not been through the flood of 2016. “It’s a lot of concrete.” Nielsen said that unfortunately, water in East Natchitoches flows south. He said more green space would help drainage and the oak trees.

He hoped the developers would reconsider in favor of a public street and largest lot sizes. Nielsen recognized the economic contributions of Rhodes. Harrington said that Batiste, an educator, was not able to attend the meeting but told him that he would vote against the appeal if he had been.

After the vote, Planning and Zoning Commission Director Juanita Fowler said there was no layover or waiting period and that Rhodes could “come back Monday” with a new plot plan.