Denied a zoning change, company sues Gonzales and three council members

A Baton Rouge company that has owned an undeveloped 25-acre parcel in Gonzales for more than 30 years is suing the city and three of the city’s five council members after the council rejected its request to rezone the property.

Filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge, South Park Business Center’s lawsuit seeks damages of $3 million and asks the judge to compel the city to rezone the property so it can develop a light-industrial park on the site.

The council members named in the suit are Gary Lacombe, Timothy Vessel Sr. and Terance Irvin, who voted to keep the C-1 light commercial retail zoning for the property.

The lawsuit is the latest salvo in the battles between some business interests and the city over rezoning issues.

Those battles included the recent zoning dispute over Crawford Electric, which prompted a letter from the Ascension Parish Chamber of Commerce blasting the city.

South Park Business Center is a Baton Rouge corporation formed by Thomas C. Keating for his various business interests, which included storage facilities and real estate, said his son, Todd Keating.

In November 2013, Todd Keating, representing the late Thomas Keating’s heirs, came before the Gonzales council with a request to rezone the 25 acres on La. 44 from C-1 to C-2, a commercial zoning designation that includes both retail and wholesale.

The rezoning request had been previously approved by the city Planning and Zoning Commission.

At the City Council meeting, a motion by Irvin to maintain the tract’s original C-1 zoning passed, supported by Lacombe and Vessel.

Councilman Kenny Matassa made a substitute motion to rezone the property to C-2, but the motion failed with only Matassa and council member Kirk Boudreaux voting for it.

“C-1 zoning is our way of attracting retail,” Irvin said at that meeting. “C-1 zoning gives the city more control.”

Keating told the council: “The property has been there a long time and is undeveloped. I can’t see retail jumping in there.”

The lawsuit says, “The property is not suitable for retail usages, considering it is surrounded by multifamily, heavy commercial, industrial and sewerage uses.

“In the 30 plus years of petitioner’s ownership of the property, no person has suggested or considered retail use for this property,” the lawsuit says. “Numerous commercial real estate brokers have indicated the non-suitability of the property for retail usages.”

The lawsuit goes on to say Lacombe, Irvin and Vessel “have conspired to reject virtually all requests to rezone any C-1 zoned real property in the City in an effort to conscript as much property as they deem fit to increase City tax revenue.

“Their actions, individually, constitute an abuse of discretion and abuse of their office, constitute an unreasonable exercise of the police power of the City, an abuse of the power granted to them as members of the City Council and a denial of the petitioner’s right of due process,” the lawsuit says.

The issue of rezoning has increasingly become a volatile one in Gonzales, with Lacombe, Irvin and Vessel repeatedly voicing their preference for C-1 zoning.

Earlier this spring, a much-touted new business prospect for Gonzales, a site of the Crawford Electric company that’s part of an international firm, came to nothing when a request for rezoning from C-1 to C-2 failed after Irvin recused himself from voting and Lacombe abstained.

On Wednesday afternoon, Lacombe said he had not yet seen the suit filed by South Park Business Center, so it would be inappropriate to comment.

C ity attorney Ryland Percy said the suit will be handled for the city and the council members by Risk Management Inc., the city’s liability insurer.

The plaintiff is asking for $3 million plus interest, claiming the company is now stuck with property zoned for retail that cannot attract retail development.

The company also asks for attorney fees and costs, as well as a trial by jury.