From Baton Rouge Business Report
Just across the East Baton Rouge Parish line in Prairieville are the attractive, brick-face, canal-side estates of Manchac Plantation and the more utilitarian suburban sprawl of Manchac Commons, within swinging distance of Santa Maria Golf Course. No sidewalks disgrace the palm-dotted lawns of the plantation homes.
Eastward, at Perkins Road and Airline Highway, is retail development galore, including a shopping plaza anchored by a grocery store, and the bane of contemporary urban planners, a Walmart Supercenter. Cars stream past the consumer jungle, which alternates between older businesses, such as Smokey’s Tobacco and Beer and Hebert Guns, and newer ones, such as a fleur-de-lis-decorated strip mall featuring florists and wine-and-spirits shops next to a fledgling United Community Bank building.
This pattern of dense housing and distant retail, elements that really only meet by way of automobile, is the antithesis of “smart growth.” The tightly clustered homes of Manchac Commons, with their matching mailboxes and recycling bins at the edge of sapling-dappled lawns, mean everyone gets a slice of the American pie, yet such development has been haphazard there to say the least, even after a surge of settlement from Orleans and St. Bernard parishes following Hurricane Katrina.
Still, if greater Baton Rouge is colloquially considered a great place to raise a family, the east bank of Ascension Parish must be the envy of its neighbors as a place to settle down and rear children. In terms of growth and development, the region is in a time of glory.
The parish is projected to roughly double in size in 20 years, and evidence of the family-friendly lure of the rural exurb is everywhere: tract home developments unfurl throughout, with children playing ball or biking or pushing go-carts.
The school district has added six primary schools since 2002, when the last new high school opened in Dutchtown. A seventh K-5 school amid the Orange Grove subdivision in Sorrento is under construction, and land is being eyed in Prairieville and Gonzales for more. The public-school system has avoided a surge in charter institutions like the one seen in East Baton Rouge, underscoring the faith that local parents put in Ascension education and its superior test scores.
“We’re fourth in the state at this point,” parish President Tommy Martinez says. “It continually draws more and more families. Rather than pay for private schools, they come here and get a good quality education.”
Although much of the population growth in the parish is ascribed to commuters north to Baton Rouge or south to metro New Orleans, Martinez also notes the attractor of “20-some chemical plants” along the Mississippi River that provide employment and critical tax revenue. “We’re not nearly as congested as the city itself,” he says. “We still have a bit of a rural characteristic.”
Yet the rapid settlement—almost 37% from 2000-09—has meant projects in Prairieville, Dutchtown, Gonzales, Sorrento and elsewhere have plunged suburban enclaves into the broad, rural area amid mobile-home parks and farmland. For those people who lament the gradual end of a more bucolic way of life apart from citified Baton Rouge, the problem is that change has already come, and much more is in store.
The U.S. Census says the population of Ascension in 1990 was about 58,000. It reached 76,600 a decade later, and it was estimated at almost 105,000 in 2009. In two more decades, officials say the parish will house more than 196,000 residents.
“The parish has urbanized,” says Jeffrey Winston, principal of Winston Associates, a Colorado community-planning firm that has been helping Ascension draft a new master plan for about a year. “It’s gone from a rural parish to a suburban parish. There are some fairly dense areas.
“There’s a lot of talk of keeping it rural. The only parts that are rural are areas that are already developed and areas with flood-plain issues. I understand they don’t want to see their neighborhoods change, and that’s not what’s being proposed. The plan is to talk about the vacant land.”
The master plan looks to establish large, mixed-use centers that would allow walkable residential-and-retail atmospheres, perhaps most dramatically including a “new town” in the vicinity of Prairieville, Winston says. “It’s not huge, but … would provide convenient shopping and kind of a central place for expanded retail and an employment center.” The plan would limit sprawl, preserve open space and likely create road and sewer taxes to install controversial sidewalks and a unified sewage system.
“The idea is to encourage ongoing rural growth, but also there’s a fairly significant demand and need for people that don’t necessarily want half-acre lots or two-acre lots,” Winston says. “That kind of growth is already occurring.”
In tandem with well-regarded public schools, suburban homestead availability drives residential demand. In February, the average sales price in Ascension fell more than $7,000 from the month before to about $196,000. While sales there matched the rate in Livingston Parish for January, they ramped up in Ascension the next month. For most of last year, East Baton Rouge topped Ascension in terms of higher prices, but not so for February, when it cost about $16,000 more on average to live in the city-parish proper.
“I have a client from Flint, Mich., who came to work for a company in New Orleans but out of the Baton Rouge office,” says Toni House, a real estate agent with Keller Williams who says higher-end Pelican Point in Gonzales, Legacy Hills in Geismar and Oaks on the Bluff in Prairieville are hot spots. “He was told to move to Ascension for the best schools.”
Doug Diez, developer and current managing partner of Pelican Point Properties, a 700-unit golfing community, says the typical homeowner there is a petrochemical engineer or plant manager, while professional couples who might split their commutes between New Orleans and Baton Rouge also find the location a “happy medium.”
For him, the Ascension growth plan oversteps its bounds where it calls for limiting development outside the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ designated parish sewer district to one housing unit per five acres, or one in 10 acres within the flood zone.
“I thought that was ludicrous,” Diez says. “Ascension Parish is no longer the rural parish it was when I was a kid here … dirt roads and farming. We’re losing that rural characteristic. We have one of the largest petrochemical regions in the country. It’s one of the fastest-growing parishes in the state. You don’t want to toy with that.”
Martinez says 5,000 to 6,000 lots are waiting for houses to be plunked down in northern Ascension Parish and in the Darrow area, but a buffeted real estate market took its toll.
Infrastructure issues also are waiting to be addressed. The rapid increase of subdivisions has disturbed the water quality and resulted in mandates for state officials to improve dissolved oxygen in Bayou Manchac and related waterways, and to address such pollutants as ammonia and fecal coliform bacteria, problems caused by land clearing and on-site septic systems.
There are 150 package treatment plants throughout the parish, Winston says. While individual septic systems provide for some waste separation, partially treated outflow goes into open ditches along roadways. That has pushed the surface water quality to 100% above allowable standards, according to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.
“If some action isn’t taken, it maybe will be hard to get a wastewater discharge permit in the future,” says Chuck Berger, water quality modeling manager for the agency in Baton Rouge. “Development can occur, but it’s going to have to occur in a different manner. A regional sewage collection and treatment system is going to be crucial for Ascension’s plans.”
Martinez says that will happen, with a $16 million central plant set to break ground in May in Geismar, thanks to a low-interest loan from the DEQ. Another $7 million, including $5 million in Hurricane Gustav recovery money, is allotted for a trunk line to run west from the plant, but another $275 million will be needed to integrate 40,000 homes and businesses in the parish.
“Hopefully, we can accommodate that,” he says, adding, “Without a plan, it would be haphazard growth like it’s been for 10 years.”