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Neighborhood Suit Prompts City to Rescind Its Approval of Mount Hope Plan

City/Parish Planning Director Frank Duke has rescinded the Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission’s December 2016 approval of a development plan that would have allowed a major expansion of catering and event facilities at Mount Hope.

The decision, which is cited in a November 18, 2017 article published by the Morning Advocate was prompted by a law suit filed last April by Attorney Scott Frazier, who represents three families who live alongside Mount Hope as well as the Magnolia Woods Civic Association (MWCA).  The MWCA board voted last spring to join the suit on behalf of the surrounding neighborhood.  In the suit still pending before District Court Judge Michael Caldwell, the plaintiffs allege that the Planning Commission violated the Unified Development Code (UDC) when it approved revisions to a long-expired Small Planned Unit Development (SPUD) plan.

In an October 23, 2017 letter to Ferris Engineering, the firm that drafted the development plan, Duke states that the 2000 SPUD development plan that was revised “appears to have expired on November 15, 2004” consistent with UDC Section 8.216.I.6.  In his letter, Duke further states that the UDC specifies that plan approval expires after three years unless a building permit is obtained and construction commences, then notes that planning staff searched but were unable to identify any construction permits in subsequent years.

Drainage Impact Overlooked

The city’s decision to rescind the Commission’s approval appears to render moot the lawsuit scheduled for hearing on November 27 in the Ninth District Court, and would thus spare city staff the discomfort of acknowledging in open court that other alleged UDC violations were overlooked during the four months the Commission reviewed the proposal.

Although Duke cited the Section 8.216.I.6 violation as justification for rescinding the Commission’s decision, Frazier was also able to document other UDC violations that were overlooked during during the City review process that precedes P&Z hearings.  Neighborhood representatives who attended the 2016 hearings repeatedly contended that the measurements that Mount Hope’s engineers used to calculate their project’s impact on drainage were miscalculated.   City employees acknowledged during legal depositions this year that the statistics were indeed miscalculated and–if measured correctly–would have triggered a mandatory drainage impact study in keeping with UDC Section 15.15.

 “As stressful as the entire process proved, the cadre of volunteers who attended hearings and/or walked streets–first circulating petitions and later gathering legal donations–feel the experience fostered a renewed sense of community around the neighborhood and demonstrated that Magnolia Woods neighbors are willing to stand up for each other.”

As proposed in 2016, the development plan provided for the construction of an 8,000-square-foot event facility and additional parking at the far rear of the four-acre Mount Hope property, which extends deep into the Magnolia Woods neighborhood.  The event hall is in fact sited 35 feet from the north (Maxine cul de sac) and east (Albert Hart) property lines.  The portion of the Mount Hope tract where the event hall and most of the other impermeable area would be added drains exclusively through surface ditches that run through Magnolia Woods.  (Impermeable areas are typically artificial surfaces such as roofs, concrete, and other features that do not readily absorb water and contribute to rapid storm water runoff.)

Residents contend the ditches were designed more than 50 years ago and already back up into surrounding yards and streets during moderate rains.  An independent engineer commissioned by the plaintiffs used sophisticated satellite imaging software to confirm that all but a small portion of the Mount Hope tract closest to Highland Road drains into the neighborhood.  His calculations (following UDC specifications) show that the planned construction would increase impermeable area by 160 percent rather than the 9.6 percent cited in the plan.

On a related note, Department of Public Works (DPW) representatives who met with local residents at a September 12 Multi-Neighborhood Drainage Meeting that MWCA co-sponsored said it is extremely difficult for DPW staff to maintain interior surface ditches that run behind properties.  Bringing in the heavy machinery crews need to do the work often damages private  property, they said.   The ditches that drain the rear of Mount Hope run along the rear of homes on Albert Hart, Maxine, Bontura Court, and Baird drives.

UDC Parking Regulations Violated as Well

The suit filed in District Court also alleges that the 2016 development plan does not conform with UDC Section 17.7, which specifies the minimum number of parking spaces required for buildings of varying sizes and use.  The plan would have added an 8,000-square-foot event hall but provided for only 27 parking spaces, or one space per 300 square feet of assembly area.  Section 17.7 specifies one space per 32 square feet of assembly area for buildings of comparable use, or 250 spaces for an 8,000-square-foot structure.  Each parking space that is added increases the amount of impermeable area and thus further impacts drainage.  The plan the developers proposed also provides for additional  bed and breakfast cottages, a garage/service area, and additional driveways and sidewalks.

Opponents of the 2016 plan also expressed concerns throughout the P&Z review process that the planned event expansion would exacerbate traffic issues on an already heavily-trafficked Highland Road.  No traffic impact study was required, nor were road improvements such as a turning lane or re-enforced road shoulders deemed necessary.

The Process, From Then to Now

The now suspended development plan was submitted to city planners in July 2016 and was scheduled for consideration four times before final approval on December 19, 2016.  The Commission deferred action on September 19, 2016 at the request of Mount Hope’s neighbors who offered evidence that they were not given notice within the time frame the UDC specifies.  The Commission once again deferred action on October 17, 2016 after lengthy, often heated opposition from Magnolia Woods residents, and urged proponents and opponents to seek compromise.

Mount Hope’s owners requested and received a third deferral on November 14, 2016 when the Commission was on the verge of losing its quorum.  By tradition, developers are offered a chance to request a deferral when fewer than seven Commissioners are present to vote.  Opponents came to the December 19. 2016 meeting, armed with petitions signed by 150 families and prepared to argue that the 2000 SPUD plan had long since expired. Instead, they were told the proposal had already received the maximum number of hearings that planning guidelines allow and were not allowed to speak.  The plan was approved on a 5-3 vote, the minimum margin required.  Because the UDC provides no mechanism to appeal SPUD decisions, opponents filed suit.

The lengthy and costly process that ensued has left opponents feeling vindicated by the facts that were disclosed during discovery and subsequently acknowledged when the Commission’s decision was rescinded.  While victorious in having the flawed approval reversed, neighbors are girding for the prospect of another battle before the P & Z Commission.  They hope that any future SPUD plan the Commission entertains will conform with all UDC regulations.  They also are prepared to argue that–if a future plan includes changes of a similar magnitude–the revisions should be considered Major Site and Use changes and therefore require full Metro Council review as well.    Duke says a new plan can be submitted any time after November 2, 2017.

Throughout the planning review process and subsequent suit, the Magnolia Woods residents who opposed the 2016 plan have stressed that they are not adverse to responsible development but are committed to preserving the peaceful character of this residential stretch of the Highland Ridge–something they believe the entire neighborhood values.  As stressful as the process proved, the cadre of volunteers who attended hearings and/or walked streets–first circulating petitions and later gathering legal donations–feel the experience fostered a renewed sense of community around the neighborhood and demonstrated that Magnolia Woods neighbors are willing to stand up for each other.

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