Carolyn Roy | News Editor
With a vote of 3-2 at its meeting Monday, the City Council upheld a Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission decision to deny an application for a subdivision on St. Maurice Lane. Voting to uphold the decision were Councilperson-at-Large Betty Sawyer-Smith and Councilmen Dale Nielsen and Eddie Harrington. Voting no were Rosemary Eli and Chris Petite.
Some 60 people packed the City Council Chambers to await the council’s decision about a proposed gated subdivision on St. Maurice that would have 37 single-family homes. Over 1,000 people signed petitions opposing the development citing potential drainage, safety and traffic congestion problems. For background, Mayor Ronnie Williams Jr. said he met with developer David Strange about a year ago about the potential development that culminated with the Aug. 10 P&Z Commission special called meeting. Members unanimously rejected Strange’s application.
He then appealed it to the City Council. Williams then called for another meeting with Strange and two councilpersons, to avoid violating the open meetings law. Williams said residents “got wind of” the meeting and several asked to attend. He said there was a healthy dialogue at that meeting and those attending agreed to disagree. Williams set the rules for the discussion at the Monday meeting by allowing Strange as well as Jack McCain Jr., who represented the opposition, 10 minutes each to speak.
Williams asked that other speakers have 3 minutes. Strange said he had incorporated remarks at that meeting with the two council members and those in opposition into his presentation at the council meeting. He reiterated details for the subdivision that he presented at the P&Z meeting. He said that the residential zoning was the least restrictive and any other zoning would have more traffic such as if a Walmart wanted to build there. At least 50 percent of the residents would commute to work and would not cause congestion among school traffic. He also said that St. Maurice Lane was an approved City street. Strange said that countless studies showed that inclusionary housing did not decrease property values, did not increase crime and would encourage economic development. He said the residents opposing it rejected change. He said the plan met all the zoning requirements, exceeded minimum lot size and the plans had been signed off by the City department heads.
The details did change somewhat from the presentation at the P&Z Commission meeting where Strange said the houses would be owner-occupied and cost approximately $225,000. At the meeting Monday, he said the houses would be rentals for the first 15 years at $850 per month. The developers would pay taxes and insurance. After 15 years, the residents could convert to ownership with residents paying $850 monthly plus taxes and insurances for another 15 years. For the same 30-year period, they would pay $340,000 rather than $540,000 for the lifetime as first proposed. He said that was not a “bait and switch” but had been approved by the La. Housing Authority.
Berkshire Hathaway Inc., a holding company headquartered in Omaha, Neb., and controlled by Warren Buffet, would buy the tax credits representing a $10 million write off. Strange said he had already spent about $250,000 on architect and accounting fees, options to the landowner, geotechnical and engineering fees and purchase of tax credits. But Strange saved his harshest words for the P&Z Commission members.
He said they did not enforce the ordinance that said that they “shall” approve plans that meet the planning and zoning requirements. He said they took the law into their own hands and asked if they hadn’t violated the law. “Due process was violated,” he said. “Why have it based on law if it’s based on who yells the loudest? That’s a hollerin’ contest, not due process.” He also said their decision was arbitrary and capricious and they took into account issues that were not relevant.
Several people spoke against the application including Latricia Walker who said she was turned down by the P&Z Commission when she wanted to develop properties for senior housing on St. Maurice Lane. “I was denied for the same reasons.” She said at the time, she felt she was discriminated against but 16 years later, did not feel that way. Walker said she now felt St. Maurice Lane was a major street and should be improved before future development there. She said the ordinances should be changed to reflect the impact of opposition and believed the change to rental then ownership was a flip-flop.
Ralph Ingram, in response to complaints about flooding and drainage problems, said that the current drainage system was built in the 1950s for agricultural purposes only. “It needs to be turned down because of poor drainage and all of us know that,” Ingram said.
Larry Turner of Alexandria was there to speak in favor of the application. He said Strange had built two projects in Alexandria and one in Pineville and all were well drained, did not lower property values and residents there were overjoyed. “He did a lot of good for our city.” After nearly two hours of discussion, Nielsen called for the vote. Harrington motioned that the council uphold the Planning and Zoning Commission decision. Petite said he was satisfied with Strange’s comments and voted not to uphold the Planning and Zoning Commission.
Elie said the plan had met City requirements. She said it was not about drainage but about the opportunities the housing would provide for people to save money and put clothes on their backs. “We need to come together,” she said. Nielsen said that as a former member of the Planning and Zoning Commission, he would not go against their decision. Harrington said it was not only about whether the developer met all the standards but also about a section in the Home Rule Charter that allowed for consideration of the type of development and discretionary power of the commission and the City Council.
He said the property will be rental and that planning and zoning commissioners “did it right.” He said Strange had changed “over and over” and false information had been given. Sawyer-Smith said people in Natchitoches making minimum wage could not afford $850 in rent. With the first application they were told it was all about home ownership and she was in favor of that.
“To pay $850 for 15 years and not be sure you’re going to own it—-I’m not in favor of that at all.”