Development boom fuels calls for more trailer parks
GEISMAR — For the past four months, Scott Merritt and his buddy, Leroy Nicholes, have been living at the Twin Lakes Mobile Estates park in Ascension Parish in a Timberlodge travel trailer.
Merritt, 33, and Nicholes, 31, both of Amite, and their co-workers set up scaffolding at the Westlake Vinyls Co., which has a major expansion underway at its plant on La. 30.
It’s a life on the road with a travel trailer in tow, dinner from the barbecue pit and nights away from home that Merritt, who is married with five children, says he has lived for nearly 15 years.
The long hours and seven-day weeks earn him $8,000 a month, Merritt said.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” he said one evening last week as he sat outside his trailer with his friends. “We’re here to make money.”
Ascension Parish government officials are expecting similarly nomadic tradesman to move into the parish in the coming years with the billions in industrial development planned in the Mississippi River industrial corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Finding gaps in their development and zoning code, parish officials earlier this month declared a six-month moratorium on new recreational vehicle parks.
Parish President Tommy Martinez said parish officials want a better handle on where RV parks for temporary workers will be located.
“If we allow it, we want to allow it in the way that we want it. We certainly don’t want a proliferation of these things that when the boom is over, you’d be stuck with the problem still hanging around,” he said.
The Planning Commission declared the moratorium Oct. 9 after the Parish Council adopted a resolution seeking the moratorium Oct. 3 at Martinez’s request.
About $4.6 billion in new projects in Ascension have been announced since the start of 2012.
Shell also is mulling whether to build a gas-to-liquids plant that could cost well in excess of $12.5 billion. It has chosen a Motiva Enterprises site in Ascension as the location for the potential project.
A decision will not be made until mid-decade, Shell says, but that project alone would draw 10,000 construction jobs.
Parish Planning Director Ricky Compton said parish officials were recently called about whether RV parks could be built in the parish’s most restrictive residential zoning categories: Conservation and Rural, which normally allow one to two single-family houses per acre.
Commercial-style zoning categories are where RV and mobile home parks are normally allowed.
Compton said RV parks for tourists in the style of a KOA Campground are allowed in the residential categories.
The developer argued to parish officials that RV parks for temporary workers could fit under that tourist provision.
Compton said the code did not have an adequate definition of what constitutes an RV park for tourist.
“We don’t think mobile home parks and RV parks should be in Conservation and Rural (zoning) because they (RV parks) get up to 20 units per acre,” he said.
He said the parish has been getting one to two calls per week about RV parks for workers.
“We’ve had a lot of inquiries,” Compton said.
What exactly the parish will propose is not yet clear, though Compton speculated the discussion could delve into a broader look at how to handle all kinds of temporary housing for workers.
The moratorium is another example of regulatory changes parish officials are considering in reaction to the new industrial development.
New minimum standards for subdivisions, which the council adopted Oct. 3, were proposed under the same rationale.
St. James Parish is seeing its own industrial projects, including the first $750 million phase of a possible $3.4 billion Nucor steel mill in Convent.
The St. James Parish Council adopted revisions to its RV and mobile home park rules that took effect in August, parish officials said.
The St. James Parish ordinance has a key provision that prohibits locating RV parks or campgrounds within 1,500 feet of a residence or within 3,000 feet of a playground, library, school, historic site or cemetery unless all adjacent property owners provide letters of no objection.
“To comply with our growing economy, we felt revisions were necessary to ensure the safety of communities and promote smart growth,” St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel said.
He said three RV parks have been built in St. James and Convent in the past few years with five total in the parish.
Robert Dupré, 64, owner of the Twin Lakes park in Ascension, which is along Interstate-10 eastbound at the La. 74 overpass, said he is planning an expansion of his RV spaces. The 70-acre park has 165 mobile home and 65 RV spots.
“We are turning away RV work right and left. There is heavy demand for RV spots right now,” he said.
Dupré noted Ascension Parish has tough RV and mobile home park regulations already as well as its own RV park at the parish-owned Lamar-Dixon Expo Center.
“And here they are making a moratorium and this, that and the other when they are in direct competition with private enterprise,” he said, wondering aloud whether that’s legal.
Dupré said if the moratorium lasts six months, it should not slow him down because he remains in the planning stages.
Martinez disputed the moratorium is aimed at private competition but is designed to make sure new RV parks are properly built and strategically located. The RV park was already at Lamar-Dixon when the parish agreed to buy it in 2009.
“Hey, if we build a park, we’re going to have follow the same rules,” he said.