Juanice Gray | Editor
The District Court upheld the Planning and Zoning Commission’s and City Council’s decisions to deny Rowanoak Development, LLC’s application for a 37-lot subdivision behind St. Mary’s, East and Weaver schools off St. Maurice Lane. Martha Crenshaw, Council for the City of Natchitoches, and James Seaman, attorney for property owners (intervenors) surrounding the proposed Glendale Subdivision, as defendants, won their case when they faced off with Reid Jones, attorney for Rowanoak Development, LLC, in District Court Thursday, Oct. 7. Judge Lala B. Sylvester presided over the courtroom that was at capacity with concerned residents opposing the controversial subdivision.
Jones filed a Writ of Mandamus Sept. 24 seeking to have the City decisions overturned. A Writ of Mandamus (Writ) can be issued in cases where the law provides no relief by ordinary means or where the delay involved in obtaining ordinary relief may cause injustice. In her judgement that came late Thursday afternoon, Sylvester dismissed the plaintiff’s Petition for Writ of Mandamus, granted the defendants’ Peremptory Exceptions of No Cause of Action and futher ordered the plaintiff to pay court costs. It also came out in court Thursday that Jones also filed a suit in federal court.
As background, in March, Rowanoak submitted a development review application with Planning & Zoning (P&Z). A public meeting was April 6 to consider the application. A preliminary (conceptual) plat received approval from the City’s water, sewer, fire, public works and electrical departments according to the suit. A revised application enlarging the lots was submitted July 14. On Aug. 10, the commission held a special called meeting where the application was denied. Rowanoak appeared before the City Council Aug. 16 to appeal that decision and on Sept. 13 the Council upheld the P&Z decision by a vote of 3-2.
In court, Crenshaw and Seaman argued the Writ was not the proper action to be filed, that the people living near the area had a right to be heard and the P&Z and Council had discretionary right to decide the matter. Crenshaw argued Rowanoak had money and time constraints and the Writ was an effort to fast track. Jones cited a specific line in the City ordinances stating, in part, “When these requirements are fulfilled the Planning Commission will grant preliminary approval of the subdivision.”
Jones argued that since the plans allegedly met criteria, the application must be approved. “The plaintiff argues that when regulations were fulfilled, they will be granted approval. Section 11 of the ordinance states preliminary plans must show facts and makes clear that there is discretion in approval, from the standpoint of public interest,” Crenshaw said. She cited Louisiana Revised Statute 33:101.1 that states, in part, “…the act of approving or disapproving a subdivision plat is hereby declared a legislative function involving the exercise of legislative discretion by the planning commission”. She said the decision was justified by “order of law.”
Seaman said the case was a simple one. “When the Planning and Zoning Commission denied it, they shouldn’t have spent the money.”
Rowanoak referenced considerable monetary loss to investors in their suit. The federal suit also seeks substantial restitution because “Rowanoak Development has experienced irreversible and substantial economic harm and a measurable interference with investment-backed expectations.”
Crenshaw stated, “There is no argument that loss of money is an injustice,” a criteria for filing a Writ. Seaman also requested Rowanoak pay his fees for representing the people. “All these people had to spend money to hire me. It is an abuse of the process,” he said. “They (Rowanoak) were denied but they want a bite of all these apples they shouldn’t get. The law is not on their side.”
Judge Sylvester asked Jones if his argument was that the will of the people did not constitute discretion. He argued that the time for discretion had passed once P&Z stated his client had met all the criteria needed for approval.
“Even if there was discretion, we’ve already satisfied requirements. The head of the department said they were met. That ends discretion,” he said. “Even if credence is formed by discretion, you have to have data to back it up.”
Judge Sylvester said, “So you want to hand pick what is legislative and what is not?” to which Jones replied, “Not when it reaches this step.” She then asked Jones if they had begun the appellate process since they’d filed suit in district court and as of Wednesday, federal court.
In her closing arguments, Crenshaw said, “Discretion is embedded in the ordinance. Data, it doesn’t say it has to be for or against, it says it’s based on data presented. Data was presented by the public.” The residents had a petition with over 1,100 signatures submitted prior to denial. “They (Council and P&Z) used data and made the decision to deny. Public concerns were presented and used to make the decision.”