Controversial development proposal prompts St. Tammany council investigation of parish president

Covington Trace Ridge, if approved by the parish, would bring around 100 residential apartment units to the Covington area.
Published: Jun. 2, 2023 at 12:18 AM CDT|Updated: Jun. 2, 2023 at 6:27 AM CDT
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COVINGTON (WVUE) - The St. Tammany Parish Council is moving forward with an investigation into Parish President Mike Cooper and his administration after a Covington councilmember said he wasn’t informed of a proposed apartment complex in his district.

The investigation, which was approved unanimously at Thursday night’s council meeting, centers on documents and information Cooper and his administration’s staff have on a proposed 100-unit Covington apartment complex.

Developers HRI Properties said the project, Covington Trace Ridge, is a $34 million investment in St. Tammany Parish that would bring 100 residential apartment units to five acres of property in Claiborne Hill, where State Roads 21 and 36, along with Highway 190, meet.

Residents living nearby said the area already experiences significant congestion. Developers contend traffic studies have been conducted and show the roads can handle the increased vehicle load, but documentation was not available to councilmembers or the public.

District 2 Councilman David Fitzgerald, who represents the area and put forward the resolution calling for an investigation, said Thursday he only learned about the proposed development on May 9, but it had apparently already gone through much of the planning process, including traffic and environmental studies and the developers were on the verge of seeking building permit approval.

“Many items have to be discovered and worked through to be permitted, and these were happening without the knowledge of the council,” Fitzgerald said. “The most troubling aspect of it is I feel an obligation to the people in my district to keep them informed, and if I’m not informed, how can I inform the people in my district?”

Several council members also spoke up, saying communication between Cooper’s administration and the council was lacking.

Fitzgerald said he was told by administration staff that, if he wanted documentation on Covington Ridge, he would have to submit a public records request.

“Which is unusual when basically [Cooper] can just open a file cabinet and walk right down the hall and hand us the information we wanted,” Fitzgerald said. “All of us have never seen a project like this, of this magnitude, that we know nothing about as it approached a building permit.”

Cooper penned a letter to Fitzgerald prior to the meeting on Thursday, saying that the resolution he drafted was disparaging toward parish staff and “demoralizing, unwarranted and extreme.”

“In fact, the Resolution makes accusations of improprieties, but does not specify which ordinances, laws, regulations or policies which you believe our employees violated,” the letter reads.

“I would ask that it be postponed for a month to show our good faith in providing you the information that you need and to prevent an embarrassment of an investigation as Councilman Marino stated,” Cooper told Fitzgerald during the meeting.

“The problem is… Mike, hey, hey,” Fitzgerald said, growing visibly frustrated with Cooper. “I’m hollering on this because yes, I did agree to consider it, but where’s the data? ‘Hey, we’re going to get you the data.’ We had to do a public records request! Why didn’t you walk down the hall and give me the data? We’re two of the same entity!”

During the meeting, Cooper alluded to being aware of the project being in development for a year.

“We’ve done projects similar to the one we’re proposing here in New Orleans, Hammond, Lafayette, we’re doing a project in Lake Charles, and this, when it’s completed, will be the finest apartment building in St. Tammany,” said Tom Leohnard with HRI Properties. “I am absolutely convinced of that.”

Leonhard and HRI Properties maintain the development does not require re-zoning, which means it does not have to go through the typical public notification process.

The property is zoned for “Highway Commercial Two,” or “HC2.” Much of the debate on the merit of the project itself came down to the word “lodging,” which is allowed in HC2 zones. But some councilmembers said “lodging” refers to short-term housing, not permanent multi-family dwellings.

The council also voted unanimously to approve a six-month moratorium on new multi-family developments in council districts 1 and 2, which includes areas to the southwest, east and north of Covington, including the Covington Trace Ridge property.

Now that the moratorium is in place, it remains to be seen whether the parish will grant HRI the permits needed to begin construction on the property. The company released the following statement:

HRI Properties has a 40+ year track record of developing premium, sustainable apartment properties that improve the lifestyles and communities for our residents, and Covington Trace Ridge Apartments is no exception. As with every project we develop, we have pursued the development of the Covington Trace Ridge Apartments in good faith and have followed all of the laws, rules and regulations set before us by the St. Tammany Parish leadership to a tee. This new $34 million sustainable development will be the finest apartment community in the Parish while uniquely offering hardworking people in St. Tammany a wonderful address that they would likely be unable to afford, including police, teachers, health care workers and government employees to name a few. It is not low-income or HUD housing. Rather, it provides 51 units that offer workforce housing for people who already live and work in the community. Average rental rates for these workforce units are $1,200. The other 49 units are market-rate units with higher rents starting at $1,600. This is a disaster resiliency project that has received $18.3 million in funding from the Office of Community Development and will improve the long-blighted area that serves as the “welcome mat” to the City of Covington in the heart of the Parish. If approved, this proposed moratorium could not only derail the entire project but also has the power to negatively and permanently impact capital investment in Covington and St. Tammany Parish as a whole. In addition, passage of this moratorium at a time when the project is so close to starting construction is not only contrary to the Parish’s existing laws, but it infringes on the property and legal rights of private businesses and sets a dangerous precedent for future investments in St. Tammany Parish.

We respect that some residents of St. Tammany Parish are afraid of and against all development in the Parish, especially apartments. However, such residents can sleep well tonight knowing that HRI Communities will develop, manage and own a wonderful development that will enhance their community long-term.

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