LIVINGSTON -- Livingston Parish Planning Director Sam Digirolamo said Wednesday he misinterpreted the classification of a trailer park that he approved for a permit, an issue the Parish Council will revisit at its Sept. 13 meeting.
Digirolamo made his comments in an interview with The News one day after a crowd at Livingston Country Club spoke out against the Parish Council's decision to allow purchase of the site, which the council approved as a temporary mobile home site two years ago.
He said he thought the site was an existing trailer park for which developer Mike Lester -- who bought the site in partnership with Dennis Sterling -- purchased five permits for the 8-acre site. Sterling paid $300,000 for the property.
Digriolamo said the site met all specifications for water, sewage and electricity -- all characteristics of an existing site.
"Really and truly, I think I made a mistake," Digirolamo said. "Instead of going to the council, this should've been handled as a new trailer park and gone through the planning commission.
"If I had to do it over again, I'd do it differently," he said.
Five Oaks Mobile Community on South Red Oak Road served as a temporary community Sheriff Jason Ard put in place for his deputies displaced during the August 2016 flood.
The Livingston Parish Council voted at its Aug. 9 meeting to grant the permit for the park, a vote on which Councilman Jeff Ard -- who represents the area -- abstained to prevent conflict of interest because it previously involved his brother, the sheriff.
Sheriff Ard sent the lot sale to Marvin Henderson, owner of Henderson Auctions, who handled the transaction.
"All I knew about this was that they got a letter from Sam saying that it had a permit to remain a trailer park," Councilman Ard said after the meeting. "When I found out about it, he told me everything was good."
Even if the matter would pass muster with the planning commission, the Parish Council would have the last word regardless, Digriolamo said.
Signage notifying residents of the intention to seek permit should have been placed in front of the park, even though parish ordinances do not require it, he said.
"Even so, I feel responsible for this," Digriolamo said. " From future, go to planning commission, no matter what. Normally, everything does go ... maybe I'm just dead wrong in the way I did this."
Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks said he was not aware of issues about the transaction until Digriolamo notified him before the Aug. 9 council meeting.
"Before that, there was no reason for me to be informed about it," Ricks said. "There was no reason for me to be involved, and department heads only inform me when I need to be involved in it."
Despite the ill will of the residents, Sterling will remain the owner until the council rescinds the decision.
"That will be up to a the council," Ricks said.
He said he does not believe it will send a negative message to prospective developers if the council rescinds a permit it had already approved.
"The gist of the matter is the proper protocol was not followed on this, and they didn't get to go and speak before the planning commission or parish council meeting, although they didn't come, even if Councilman Ard told them to come," Ricks said. "The owner did not really do anything wrong.
"There was no ill will or ill intention in anything anybody has done in this regard, he said. "It's a lot of money involved ... too much money for him to walk away from."
Residents at the country club meeting expressed boisterous disapproval of the plan on grounds that it would interfere with their quality of life.
The agenda was published in The Livingston Parish News, but no residents appeared at the meeting to express their feelings about the park.
He asked the council to bring up the issue at the Aug. 23 meeting to gauge public input before the vote.
Regardless of the outcome, Randall Davis and other residents said they knew two years ago the park was supposed to be temporary.
"I feel 100 percent blindsided," said Davis, whose wife found out from a neighbor that it would become a permanent site.
"I spent my life savings to move out here, and now this is happening," he said.
Resident Josh Smith accused the parish of "making a shady deal" in the process.
"They just pay $200 per for permits, and that's it. Does that sound right?" he said.
"I said to the council that we needed to let the people talk before we'd make the decision, but nobody was there," Councilman Ard said.
Resident Harriet Corbin argued that the infrastructure cannot handle the park.
"It won't be able to handle the sewer that will come in," she said. "Our system won't be able to handle it. I live in the dead center of this area and I don't want your park."
Resident Edwin Litolff also expressed about concern about sewage capacity.
"There needs to be a study," he said. "I can tell you that we have problems with it every time it rains."
Councilman Ard said he put the matter on the Aug. 23 agenda -- two weeks after the first vote -- to gauge additional public input.
"You represent us ... I don't know where you live and I don't care where you live, but we're not being represented," Corbin said.
"We're here to make it right," Councilman Ard replied.
One resident said the wetland issue could derail the transaction because the federal government can overrule decisions from the parish and state.
Others took issue with a trailer park in an area of middle-to-upper class homes due to fear of a loss in property value and perhaps an increase in criminal activity.
"Eastover Subdivision was a nice area 25 years ago," one resident said. "Look at it now."
Sterling, who owns five other mobile home parks, said after the meeting the Livingston Parish Planning Commission issued him letter stating the property was considered an existing mobile home park.
"Nobody ever said it was temporary," he said. "I was aware of the wetlands on the property, but otherwise I was under the impression it was an existing mobile home park."
Sterling said he hopes to reach a compromise with the residents.
He did not directly answer a question about legal action if the parish rescinded the permit, but his attorney Lane Bennett was seated between him and Lester during the meeting.
"My objective is to do no harm, but I can't afford to take the financial loss," he said. "I only buy existing parks and that's what I understand I was buying."
Sterling said he understands the anger among residents. He said he only buys existing parks, and would not have purchased the property had he known the problems he would face.
"I know people are upset, but I'm also a little disappointed that they stereotyped people who live in mobile homes and think they're better than people who live in mobile home parks," he said. "It's unfortunate and almost hypocritical to think they allowed deputies, yet maybe other people are looking for a home, too."
Digirolamo said it was the first time he encountered an issue on mobile home park zoning. He said the residents deserve another opportunity be heard.
"I don't mind standing up and saying when I'm wrong," he said.