Gonzales taking first steps to developing new master plan

There’s a lot riding on the new master growth plan in the works for the city of Gonzales.

Residents and officials are looking to a new plan to provide clearer direction for the city’s growth, particularly for zoning, an issue that’s been a hot topic before the City Council over the past year.

The current master plan, created in 1997, is “woefully outdated,” Frank Cagnolatti, chairman of the Gonzales Planning and Zoning Commission, said Friday.

Yet time and again, the plan has been used in the City Council as an argument, typically against requests for zoning changes.

The hope is that a new plan could provide the city a better road map to growth.

The Center for Planning Excellence in Baton Rouge has a $162,500 contract with the city, payable in portions as work is completed, to develop a new plan — a process expected to take up to a year to complete.

CPEX representatives held their first meeting Thursday with the committee of residents who will be working with the organization throughout the process. CPEX Planning Director Janet Tharp told them her staff heard from residents that the current, 17-year-old plan “doesn’t give adequate direction in decision making.”

“The maps are difficult to interpret and understand,” she said.

And the zoning ordinance under the current plan “does not address modern development issues and patterns,” Tharp said.

A new plan “doesn’t necessarily fix zoning, but we will analyze it” and make recommendations, she said.

CPEX will be using the services of two other companies: ECONorthwest, of Eugene, Oregon, a “buildable lands” analyst, and Third Coast Design Studio, of Nashville, Tennessee, for graphics and illustrations of master plan concepts.

Eleven residents who had been invited by the mayor and councilmen to participate on the committee attended Thursday’s meeting. Five other residents who had accepted the invitation to be part of the committee were absent.

Cagnolatti and commissioner Terry Richey, representing the Planning and Zoning Commission, are also on the committee.

The group includes business owners, representatives of civic, business and neighborhood groups, and developers and builders, as well as representatives from local government boards and commissions.

“Your role is to give input throughout the project,” Tharp said.

Giving a quick snapshot of Gonzales, Tharp ticked off some of its assets — it’s close to industrial refineries; it has a thriving retail center along Interstate 10; and it has high-quality city services, schools and a parks and recreation system.

Weaknesses, she said, include traffic snarls, particularly along La. 30; some poor road conditions; a lack of design standards for new development; and a need to expand the water system for future growth.

Gonzales is far from a bedroom community. “You have about as many people leaving to work as those coming here” to work each day, Tharp said.

Figures from 2012 show that approximately 3,000 people drive in from outside the city to work in Gonzales every day, while another 3,000 residents of Gonzales leave the city each day to work elsewhere.

“The idea is you match your jobs and the employment, so that people can work close to where they live,” Tharp said.

Some committee members voiced their concerns about the city.

Marie Broussard, a Realtor, said the population of Gonzales doesn’t seem to be growing. It’s been in the neighborhood of 10,000 since about 2008.

“Gonzales should have seen a much, much larger residential growth,” Broussard said.

On the other hand, she said, commercial growth in the city has been “tremendous.”

Businessman Olin Berthelot asked about the political situation in city government, with a three-man voting bloc by Councilmen Gary Lacombe, Terance Irvin and Timothy Vessel in control of the City Council.

The situation has led to a recent mayoral veto of the city’s budget for the new fiscal year, which began in June.

“You need to address it because we’re all concerned about it,” Berthelot said of the political situation.

“I’m happy to have any of the political conversations individually with you, but I’d rather not have them in this forum,” Tharp replied. “I think it’s important to keep this process (to develop a master plan) at an elevated level.

“Everyone supports getting a plan,” she said of the city’s five councilmen. “That is a common ground to start the process from.”

“All cities are political environments,” Tharp said in an interview Friday. “To get real pointed and specific (about politics), we would never get the plan done.”

The master plan process, once a plan has been drafted, will include a series of public hearings; the plan will need to be approved by the City Council to be implemented.