Metro Louisville

Louisville Metro Council Member Brent Ackerson worked behind the scenes with a developer to push through a controversial development over the objections of community members and the city’s Planning Commission.

Lawyer Steve Porter called Ackerson’s behavior “blatant favoritism” and “corruption” in a lawsuit filing late last week. The lawsuit uses emails and texts to document connections among Ackerson, developer Scott Hagan and the professional lobbyists and lawyers Hagan hired. The communications provide a window into their strategy for overturning the Planning Commission’s ruling, and how Louisvillians with connections can circumvent community opposition. 

Porter is representing The Cedar Creek Gardens Homeowners Association and other residents living near the proposed development in southeast Louisville. They’re arguing in Jefferson County Circuit Court that Metro Council’s decision to pave the way for the project was based on back-channel conversations, not the merits of the proposed apartment complex.

“This means that if a developer wants to get something done, all he has to do is get in with the right Metro Council member and have him run it through the Metro Council without any worries,” Porter told WFPL News. “Why should something like this happen ever for any project? It just shouldn’t happen.”

In addition to asking the courts to strike down the Metro Council vote, Porter said he hopes the lawsuit sends a message so that “nothing like this happens to any other neighborhood.”

Porter will face off against lawyers for Metro Council on Friday, when a judge is expected to decide whether more phone and email communications between Metro Council and the developer should be released through discovery. 

“YOU PLAYED IT LIKE A MAESTRO.”

In February, news broke that Hagan Properties, Inc. was planning to invest $48 million into a 344-unit apartment complex at 8006 Cedar Creek Road, near the Fern Creek neighborhood. The project aimed for 15 two- and three-story buildings constructed on 19 acres, and included plans for a dog park, pet salon and car care facility.

The only problem was that the land was zoned for single-family homes, not for multi-family apartments or townhomes. 

In order to change the property’s zoning, Hagan Properties would have to go to Louisville’s Planning Commission for approval. The Commission’s staff recommended against the project in an April report, saying the proposed development wasn’t well-connected to the surrounding neighborhood and wasn’t close to activity centers or transit corridors. The Commission voted 6-3 on April 12 to recommend that Metro Council deny the rezoning. 

The item went next to Metro Council’s Planning and Zoning Committee, which reviewed the Hagan zoning case on May 11. Typically, the committee accepts the Planning Commission’s recommendation and sends it to the full council to make it formal. But at that meeting, District 22 Council Member Robin Engel, a Republican, wanted to do something different: send it back to the commission to be reconsidered.

The committee adopted Engel’s proposal, and moved it on to the full council. The property is in Engel’s district.

In emails to their team of lawyers and lobbyists on May 19, Scott Hagan and his son Layson expressed their displeasure with the proposed move, which they didn’t think was likely to result in their winning a rezoning approval. They said Engel’s proposal was asking the Planning Commission to “simply consider doing a total 180.”

“Who is Robin’s opponent in the next election?” Layson wrote to the team. “I will be supporting with the maximum campaign contribution .. Sort of rhetorical but not really.”

Scott said he had already met earlier that day with Ackerson, a Democrat representing District 26 who is a personal injury lawyer, and Jon Goldberg, another local lawyer. Scott told his team in an email that the meeting “went fabulously.” He said Ackerson “loved our case” and would “lead the charge” to get the rezoning approved.

Ackerson is the chair of Metro Council’s Government Oversight and Audit Committee. He does not serve on the Planning and Zoning Committee.

He and other Metro Council members and staff whose communications are included in the lawsuit did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The County Attorney’s Office also did not respond.

Scott added that his team needed “to make sure [Metro Council President] David James and the rest of the Dems show up.” Scott said he would call a friend in state government to “make sure he touches David James again.”

Other emails from May 19 and May 20 show Hagan Properties and its team — Goldberg, zoning attorney Bill Bardenwerper, and lobbyists John McCarthy and Sherman Brown — scrambling to help Ackerson gain support for an amendment to overturn the Planning Commission’s decision entirely, and approve the rezoning. They hoped council members would approve that rather than Engel’s motion to return the item to the Planning Commission.

On May 20, the day of the final Metro Council vote, McCarthy told Scott Hagan he made about 20 calls to various council members. Scott emailed Ackerson asking him to request the vote of District 12 Council Member Rick Blackwell, a Democrat, and to “let Rick know who it is for.”

Scott also sent Ackerson screenshots of text messages between his team and Steve Haag, the caucus director for Metro Council’s Republican minority. Haag explained to them that many Metro Council members were “squeamish” about how hard Ackerson was pushing to overturn the Planning Commission’s recommendation.

“You need to understand that Brent [Ackerson] going this far just now causes everyone to feel as if he has something at stake. This is highly unusual behavior and even Dems are noting that as well,” Haag allegedly wrote in a text message. 

Despite whatever reservations Metro Council members might have had, when the body voted on Ackerson’s amendment later that night nearly every fellow Democrat supported it.

The amendment, which allowed the council to reject the Planning Commission’s recommendation and approve the rezoning, passed 18-6, with District 21 Council Member Nicole George being the only Democrat in opposition. With the exception of Council Member Marilyn Parker of District 18, all of the Republican caucus voted against Ackerson’s amendment. 

It’s unclear why Metro Council members voted the way they did, but their decision was reason to celebrate for Scott, who had managed to get the council to take an unusual step in order to approve his multi-million dollar development.

“I want you to know that I am on my third huge vodka celebrating with Wendy” — Scott’s wife — “thinking about what a huge victory this was and it was done by friends (you and Jon) who are truly pros (you and Jon),” Scott wrote in an email to Ackerson.

“YOU PLAYED IT LIKE A MAESTRO.”

Ackerson responded, “Jon [Goldberg] is someone I look up to and he thinks a lot of you, so de facto you were my guy from the get go.” 

He also thanked Scott, the developer, for inviting him to “the party.”

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL.