After a marathon debate that underscored the tensions created by St. Tammany’s rapid residential growth, the Parish Council late Thursday launched a formal investigation into Parish President Mike Cooper's administration and its handling of a 100-unit apartment development just outside the city of Covington.
Specifically, council members are demanding to know how the $34 million Covington Trace Ridge Apartments made it so deep into the permitting stage without any council members — or the public, according to a cadre of speakers Thursday night — knowing about it.
Several council members insisted their investigation — a first for the council — did not stem from any claims of impropriety by Cooper or his administration.
Still, it laid bare the council's deteriorating relationship with Cooper, who the council blames for a lack of communication between the branches of St. Tammany government.
$34 million project
HRI Properties wants to build the apartments on five acres that back up to the Bogue Falaya near the intersection of Louisiana 21 and U.S. 190 Business in Claiborne Hill.
The complex would offer 51 units for “workforce” housing at around $1,200 per month; and 49 market-rate units, with rent starting at around $1,600.
The $34 million investment includes $18.3 million from the Louisiana Office of Community Development.
The land is zoned HC-2, a highway commercial designation that parish zoning officials say allows apartment developments up to 100 units. Because there was no requested changes to the zoning, public meetings and council approval aren't required as part of the planning process.
'More cars than roads'
Still, the lack of any public meetings drew withering criticism from some area residents in the audience, who also questioned the location of the development near what they say is already a traffic-choked intersection in a traffic-choked parish.
“We have more cars in St. Tammany than we have roads,” Lynn Fritscher, who lives in the area, told the council.
“I dare you to come out in the morning at 7 o’clock to see the traffic backed up,” added Robert Barnett, to a chorus of “yeahs” and “that’s rights” from the crowd.
Council member David Fitzgerald, in whose district the land sits, said he didn’t learn of the apartments until May 9 when he was called into a meeting with Cooper and company representatives and that they talked as if the development was a fait accompli.
Angered by what he and other council members have claimed is a long-simmering lack of communication from Cooper, Fitzgerald authored the investigation resolution.
Fitzgerald, losing his temper at one point, called the lack of information “unprecedented” and “outrageous.”
“I’ve had enough!” he yelled, to a round of applause from apartment opponents in the audience.
Tom Leonhard Jr., HRI’s president and CEO, said told the council Thursday that the company, has “played by the rules.” He said the company has done $1.6 billion in development across the state and this would be “the finest apartment building in St. Tammany Parish.”
“Don’t make our company and our project collateral damage,” Leonhard later urged the council, referencing the growing schism between the council and Cooper.
'Embarrassment of an investigation'
While the council said its investigation wasn’t personal, it was clear that Cooper wasn’t buying it.
Bristling at the “tone” of the resolution, Cooper said his administration does communicate with the council. He said no council members had evidence of any codes or laws that had been broken and urged Fitzgerald several times in recent days to drop it “and prevent the embarrassment of an investigation.”
But the council wasn’t swayed: The vote to launch the investigation was a unanimous 14-0.
Still in the air is how an investigation will be conducted. Council Administrator Gina Campo said Friday the mechanics are still being worked out.
“This has never been done before,” she said.
Later in the meeting, the council unanimously approved a six-month moratorium on multi-family development in the council's 1st and 2nd districts. It was not immediately clear how it will impact HRI's proposed apartment complex.
That vote came after council members recessed to a private area for an executive session that had not been advertised on the agenda.
Jeff Schoen, an attorney for HRI, raised procedural questions about the ordinance, contending that the council’s vote violated the parish’s charter, which says an ordinance that is substantially amended must lay over at least 26 days between introduction and a vote. Schoen said Covington Trace Ridge has already received some permits, "so we don't believe (the moratorium) applies to us."
Schoen, who frequently handles zoning and development issues in St. Tammany Parish and has a long working relationship with the council, also questioned the legality of the council’s executive session.
Typically, executive sessions, which are closed to the public, are advertised beforehand on the council’s agenda. This one came after Council member Rykert Toledano, who is also a lawyer, said litigation over the moratorium had been “suggested.”