Home-building debate rages in St. Tammany, and both sides say quality of life is at stake | One Tammany

Luna Ruth

Traffic and flooding from rampant growth are wrecking St. Tammany Parish, supporters of a proposed moratorium on high-density residential development told the Parish Council during a marathon debate over the proposal Thursday night.

Speaker after speaker came to the microphone to urge the council to act, calling it long overdue. “Where’s the can? You’re kicking it again,” said Terri Lewis Stevens. “You are the problem, you are not the solution.”

But developers argued just as passionately that putting the brakes on homebuilding will cripple St. Tammany’s economy. They predicted lost livelihoods, the loss of tax revenue generated by the industry and skyrocketing housing costs in the face of diminished supply.

Todd Dean, a plumbing contractor and real estate broker, said a moratorium will simply move growth from St. Tammany to nearby Tangipahoa and Washington parishes. “The traffic isn’t going to stop,” he said. “Is St. Tammany going to be a drive-to parish or a drive-thru parish?”

Vote delay to May

It’s up to the St. Tammany Parish Council to determine who made the more persuasive case, but that decision won’t come until May 5. That’s when the Parish Council will finally vote on the moratorium, albeit a shorter and slightly less stringent version than initially sought by St. Tammany Parish President Mike Cooper’s administration.

Cooper’s original proposal would have banned any rezoning request that increased the number of homes allowed on a piece of land to more than one per acre. It would not have affected land already zoned for greater density, already approved rezonings or commercial development.

Council member Jimmie Davis, who sponsored the measure at Cooper’s request, sought an amendment allowing up to two homes per acre, and council member Chris Canulette sought another reducing the moratorium from six months to three.

Both amendments were adopted after three hours of comment from council members and the public.

Parish at crossroads

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Cooper launched the discussion with a slickly produced video, which he narrated, that said the parish is at a crossroads and must act now or risk losing its unique charm and culture.

Parish Council members agreed that solutions are needed for traffic congestion and other problems, but they took issue with Cooper’s approach. Council member Jake Airey said he would have preferred a limit of four houses per acre. Airey also said that some areas of the parish don’t have an issue with too much density, and a more targeted moratorium would be better than putting the whole parish on lock down.

But council member David Fitzgerald said he thinks the moratorium is a good idea and will allow the parish to review its ordinances to ensure that they produce the right outcome. Developers are following the rules, he said, so bad results mean the ordinances need to be changed.

“We shouldn’t build another house that has any chance of flooding. It just shouldn’t be done,” he said. “Nobody wants to see 500 acres leveled and 2,500 houses built … nobody wants to look out and see a sea of rooftops.”

Audience members echoed Fitzgerald’s comments, with several saying that they were all right with the amendments but were disappointed in a further delay of the measure, which was first introduced at the council’s January meeting.

Both sides galvanized

Nancy Wagner, a western St. Tammany homeowner who successfully fought a proposal to bring a distribution center run by the medical supply giant Medline in 2020, said that she sees the moratorium as akin to an intervention for a family member or friend with a substance abuse problem, adding that the issue has galvanized the community.

But homebuilder Jules Guidry presented the council with a thick binder of 500 letters from moratorium opponents, ranging from electricians and carpenters to material suppliers, “the people and the paychecks,” he said.

“I’ve never witnessed an issue so galvanizing,” he said.

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