LIVINGSTON – Meetings will begin this month for a nine-member panel the Livingston Parish Council appointed to review a document that could change the playbook on future growth.
Members will dissect “Envision Livingston: A Comprehensive Master Plan for Investing in Our Future.” A move toward zoning through much of the unincorporated areas throughout Livingston Parish represents the ultimate goal for some members of the council.
Members include Albany Mayor Eileen Bates McCarrolll, Dominique Abrams, Larry O'Neill, Kay Keen, Kayla Lockhart Johnson, Jeff Saddler, Gerald Burns, John Wascom, and Jeff Ard.
The master plan is not new to Livingston Parish, nor is the push for zoning.
Zoning has been in place for decades in the city limits of Denham Springs, and the City of Walker enacted zoning in 2012, amid resistance from some residents.
The Livingston Parish Planning Commission adopted the master plan April 17, 2013. It was adopted a month later by the Parish Council members – all of whom left office when their term expired at the end of 2015.
The plan was funded with a $450,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Planning Agency’s Long-term Recovery Program.
It proposed the parish hire a full-time planner to advise parish government on land use rules. It also promoted long-range planning to address traffic and infrastructure needs for the parish, whose population remains among the fastest in the southeastern region of the United States.
The plan cites a need for development of major thoroughfares and expansion of the water and sewer systems. The additional infrastructure would require right-of-way acquisitions, which could prove cumbersome if a new development encroaches on prospective sites for roadways.
The plan itself imposes neither regulations nor zoning but adopts guiding principles for such ordinances that may be adopted in the future.
The issue became a battle of “East versus West” in the process, with resistance from the less populated areas on the eastern end of the parish. Discussion eventually ended and the master plan went dormant.
The measure had been adopted, but never brought into law. In the midst, residents have protested developments they considered a threat to their quality of life.
The projects included the Southern Aggregates Gravel Pit near Watson between 2014 and 2016, as well as a gun range in a residential area near Springfield in late 2016.
Protests from residents of Woodland Acres near Walker against approval of a preliminary plat for the Starwood Knoll multifamily development brought the parish’s lack of zoning laws back into the spotlight.
The master plan and possible move toward zoning would ensure quality of life for families throughout the parish, said one resident who opposes the Starwood Knoll development.
“I want what’s right because I’m fixing to bring up children in this parish,” DeeDra Rochelle Sellars said.
It also rebooted the discussion on the master plan and zoning. District 7 Councilman Tracy Girlinghouse – who represents the Walker area – drew approval from fellow members to reopen the discussion on the master plan. He hopes to make the push for zoning by the end of 2019.
The March and August 2016 floods kept the master plan discussion off the table for the current council until January of this year.
“We had nine new people on the council having to learn as we went along, and then we had the flood, which stole nearly two years from things we could’ve been addressing,” Girlinghouse said. “There are no good excuses in life, but that’s where we were.”
Burns, a former Livingston Parish Planning Commission chairman, was among the nine members named to the current board in March.
He played a key role in the work on the Master Plan. The development of additional subdivisions and the continued growth in commercial real estate – most notably Juban Crossing – have brought changes to the Livingston Parish landscape, he said.
Even so, Burns does not believe the new committee will need to overhaul the Master Plan.
“Not much has really changed,” he said. “The maps may require some updating, but nothing major.”
The biggest change may involve selection of a new engineering firm, Burns said. Jeff Winston Engineering of Boulder, Colo., which handled much of the legwork, merged with MIG in August 2016.
The Parish Council must eventually decide on a firm if it decides to move further into the process, he said.
Aside from Girlinghouse, the prospect of zoning has drawn strong support from council members Garry “Frog” Talbert of the Watson area, as well as Maurice “Scooter” Keen, John Wascom and R.C. Bubba Harris – all from the Denham Springs area.
Councilmen Jeff Ard of Livingston and Jeff Averett, who represents the area from Walker South to French Settlement, said they would back the plan only for the non-rural sectors of their districts.
Council members Tab Lobell of the Springfield/Killian area and Shane Mack of Albany have said their constituents would not accept zoning. Both council members said they would approve it for areas that want it.
O’Neill, a resident of Maurepas, presides over Livingston Parish Gravity Drainage District 7. He believes zoning is long overdue – and it should apply to his area, as well.
The location of a Dollar General Store directly across from Maurepas School serves as an example for why zoning would help his area. Residents circulated a petition to block DG from opening across from the school, but the discount retailer complied with parish building regulations, he said.
“With zoning, they never would’ve located there,” O’Neill said. “I’m not saying it shouldn’t be there – in fact, it’s good for the area – but with zoning, it would have been located where we have other commercial property.”
He also believes the lack of zoning and a Master Plan have turned away prospective businesses that did not want to set up shop in an area without a definite plan on sewer, roads and other infrastructure.
A willingness to compromise could move the plan forward and bring better opportunities to the entire parish, O’Neill said.
“We can’t live in the 1980s anymore … we need to realize what decade and century we’re in,” he said. “We need to look the potential in the next decade or next two decades in Livingston Parish, and prepare for it.”
The future of Livingston Parish depends largely on the Master Plan and the move toward zoning, Girlinghouse said.
“This is the moment, and I believe once the Master Plan is enacted and in place, it will be the single most important piece of legislation in the history of Livingston Parish. Period,” he said. “I won’t make a lot of friends with this, but I believe it’s the right thing to do.”