Zoning battle in Ascension
Two major roadblocks still stand in the way of Emerson Process Management’s plans to build a $10 million regional campus in the Ascension Parish city of Gonzales.
The Fortune 500 company, based in St. Louis, manufactures products and provides engineering services for a number of industries.
The first roadblock involves negotiating a sales tax arrangement with the city and the parish that would keep sales tax rates for the company’s site at the same level as those charged to other businesses in the city and the parish.
The second roadblock is in the form of a lawsuit filed to stop Gonzales from rezoning from residential to commercial the 18-acre tract of land on West Orice Roth Road that is the potential site for the campus.
The lawsuit was filed in the 23rd Judicial District Court by six Gonzales residents who object to the campus locating near the largest black neighborhood in the city. The plaintiffs argue that city officials didn’t follow proper protocol during the rezoning process.
The lawsuit alleges defendants Mayor Barney Arceneaux, the Gonzales City Council and the city’s Zoning Commission violated a number of procedures — failing to collect a rezoning filing fee, accepting a verbal rezoning request rather than a written one, and engaging in “spot zoning,” to name a few — in the months leading to the City Council’s June 25 adoption of the rezoning ordinance.
City officials have admitted they perhaps didn’t follow all of the procedures. They also said they treated the Emerson rezoning issue no differently than any other one and have started looking into cleaning up some of the zoning regulations.
City officials don’t believe the lawsuit will hold up the development, although the project could be delayed. City Clerk Clay Stafford said that even if the allegations are proven true, that won’t stop Emerson, city officials and the current owner of the land in question from restarting the process and following the procedures correctly.
Marlin Wilson, Emerson’s general manager in Ascension Parish and the expansion project leader, said the company has options other than Ascension Parish but remains committed to reaching an agreement to locate its new campus on West Orice Roth Road.
Perhaps the bigger roadblock, though, is the sales tax arrangement. Because the West Orice Roth Road property was annexed into the city, the property is subject to parish and city taxes, according to current parish and city ordinances. That means Emerson would be taxed at a rate of 10.5 percent, while other businesses and residents in the city and parish are charged 8.5 percent.
Parish and city officials are working to find a solution. The one officials are discussing would be for the city, parish and Sheriff’s Office to forgive half of their sales taxes for the Emerson project. The city would receive 1 of its 2 percent, the parish 0.75 of its 1.5 percent and Sheriff’s Office 0.25 of its 0.5 percent. Combined with the other 6.5 percent that goes to the state, school board and drainage district, that would leave Emerson with an 8.5 percent sales tax burden.
The officials also must decide if this compromise would remain on the books for future projects or be changed again to allow only Emerson to receive the tax break. To get that done, new ordinances would have to be accepted by both parish and city councils. The issue could come up as soon as the parish council’s next Finance Committee meeting in October. From there, it’s at least a month to introduce ordinances and vote on them.
If those roadblocks are cleared, Emerson indicated it can move forward with purchasing the property from Nolan “Sonny” Lamendola, who said he is willing to develop the property for residential purposes if necessary but thinks he ultimately will sell to Emerson.
In the end, though, it’s a deal that appears likely to get done, city and parish officials said. None of the elected officials appear to want to stand in the way of an expansion project that will aid a company that has been in business in the area for more than four decades and will bring an additional 50 jobs to the region.
Bret H. McCormick covers government and education in Ascension Parish for The Advocate. His email address is email@example.com.