St. James land-use plan now in council’s hands

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 5, 2014

By David Vitrano

VACHERIE – The ball is now in the court of the St. James Parish Council as Blaise Gravois wrapped up a series of eight informational meetings on the proposed comprehensive parish land-use plan with a session at the courthouse annex in Vacherie.

The meetings were an effort to make sure the public was well informed about the plan before the Council holds public hearings and then votes on an ordinance.

“The intent is to have these two public hearings in the next month,” said Gravois, who was unsure whether the plan would make it onto the Feb. 5 agenda.

Although only a handful of residents showed up for the final session, which was delayed by Winter Storm Leon last week, Gravois said the other meetings have averaged about 25 participants. The meetings were purposely held in various locations throughout the parish — on both sides of the Mississippi River — and at different times during the day so the largest number of parish residents could attend.

“I think almost everybody has been receptive,” said Gravois. “The biggest concern is where industry locates.”

The plan lays out areas for future growth of industry, as well as residential neighborhoods and commercial regions, in the parish. It takes into consideration the current layout of the parish as well as current trends.

For years, industries wishing to locate in unincorporated areas of the parish have faced few hurdles on the parish level. Factors such as proximity to residential areas, schools or historic sites had been given little consideration, resulting in problems such as the recent request by Wolverine Terminals to open a facility in a residential area of Paulina or the ever-increasing encroachment of industry on the communities in the St. James area. According to Gravois, adoption of the plan could help in this regard.

“The only zoning in St. James Parish is in the Town of Gramercy and the Town of Lutcher,” he said, adding, “They just come to get a building permit to build. Without a plan, there’s nothing you can do.”

Still, the plan itself stops short of actual zoning.

“This is considered what they call a smart-growth plan,” said Gravois. “We’re not here to tell people what to do with their property. But at least now we can let them know what’s coming in the future.”

Adoption of the plan could help parish residents in another way, as well. In the past, the St. James Parish School Board has spent exorbitant amounts of money on school facilities, only to see them close shortly thereafter. In Romeville, for example, a new gymnasium — costing more than $1 million — was completed mere months before the School Board closed the school. This is because with no clear plan for the future, spending among schools must show some equality, so the school in a heavily industrial area with fewer than 100 students must be treated the same as a school in a heavily residential area with 300 or more students. A comprehensive land-use plan, however, could allow the School Board to use its dollars in the most effective way possible.

Furthermore, by encouraging residential growth in certain areas, the parish could better attract businesses because a less spread-out population means a higher concentration of consumers.

“One of the main goals we’re trying to accomplish right now is to look at our population,” said Gravois. “We don’t have people who just move into St. James Parish.”

Of course, one of the major hurdles the plan now faces is providing effectiveness without the use of zoning, which, Gravois noted, may be the next step. He said the ordinance being drawn up by the parish’s attorneys will likely be as much a part of the plan as the maps and supporting documents Gravois and the rest of the committee compiled over the past few years. He said the ordinance will determine how the plan is enforced once it is adopted.