In The News › N.O. ordinance proposal takes on land use, politics

Jun 18, 2008

Source: Times-Picayune

Filed under: Ethics, On the Ballot, Orleans Parish

N.O. ordinance proposal takes on land use, politics

N.O. ordinance proposal takes on land use, politics
by Bruce Eggler, The Times-Picayune
Wednesday June 18, 2008, 8:59 PM

New Orleans voters already have a chance this fall to approve a City Charter amendment making the inspector general’s office permanent. If the City Council agrees, they also will vote on an even more significant charter change, one intended to curtail the role of politics in determining how land throughout the city can be used.

Having won council approval of the charter amendment protecting the newly created inspector general’s office, council President Jackie Clarkson is pushing an amendment that would revamp the way the city makes decisions on land-use and zoning issues.

The amendment would give the city’s yet-to-be-written master plan the force of law, take the council out of many land-use decisions, and change the way City Planning Commission and Board of Zoning Adjustments members are appointed.

Clarkson has introduced an ordinance calling a Nov. 4 election on the proposal. She hoped to have it voted on today but agreed to postpone a vote until at least July 10 after the Planning Commission said it needed time to critique the document.

Although the ordinance has no listed co-sponsors, Clarkson said she thinks it will get at least five favorable votes on the seven-member council. However, it appears likely to provoke more controversy than the measure backing the inspector general, which the council approved with no dissent.

Master plan

The basic goal of the proposal is to take land-use decisions out of politics, but some longtime government observers question whether that is a good idea or, even if it is, whether the proposed changes would accomplish all the intended goals.

The key provisions in the amendment would direct the Planning Commission to create a 20-year “master plan for the physical development of the city” and require that zoning laws and amendments, other land-use regulations, the city’s capital budget and capital improvement plan, and all “public projects” must be “consistent with the master plan.”

Under the amendment, the master plan could not be amended more than once a year. This restriction is intended to prevent the council from amending it whenever someone proposes a project inconsistent with the plan, as critics say the council has long done with the zoning ordinance.

In fact, the charter has for many years required preparation of a master plan, but there is no requirement that zoning decisions or other actions conform to it, and efforts to create the plan have foundered.

The amendment also would:

— Give the Planning Commission the right to rule on all applications for conditional uses, which are activities allowed only if they receive special permits to which the city can attach conditions. Many types of businesses with the potential to harm their neighbors are conditional uses in most zoning districts.

The commission now makes recommendations on such applications to the council, which has the final decision. Although the language in the amendment is somewhat ambiguous, Clarkson said it is her intention to remove the council from the process. Appeals of the commission’s decisions would go to Civil District Court, as now happens with appeals from the Board of Zoning Adjustments.

— Set up a five-member committee to nominate members of the Planning Commission and Board of Zoning Adjustments. The committee would consist of two professional planners and representatives of “the business community,” a preservation organization and a neighborhood organization, none specified by name. The committee would submit three names for each vacancy to the mayor, who would pick one. The mayor now can nominate anyone he wants for the two bodies, subject to confirmation by the council.

— Reduce planning commissioners’ terms from nine to five years, with a maximum of two terms. Current commissioners would serve until their terms expire and could be reappointed.

— Require the council to “make adequate appropriations” to the Planning Commission to carry out its duties.

— Reduce the Board of Zoning Adjustments from seven to five members. This would reverse a change made in 1995 to help the board get a quorum for meetings. The board rules on requests for waivers to city regulations such as setback requirements and also hears appeals of some decisions by the Department of Safety and Permits.

— Require the city to establish “a system for organized and effective neighborhood participation in land use decisions and other issues that affect quality of life,” including preparing and amending the master plan.

Many of the proposed changes echo recommendations the Bureau of Governmental Research made in 2006 in a report urging that planning decisions should be made in a more professional way less subject to political pressure.

The same appeal has long been made by many neighborhood leaders and planning experts — most notably lawyer and preservationist William Borah, president of Smart Growth for Louisiana, who has taken his call for a “master plan with the force of law” to dozens of community forums.

The basic complaint voiced by Borah and others is that allowing the council to overrule Planning Commission recommendations and change the zoning law at will allows politically connected developers and business people to pull strings and get favorable treatment. It also makes it hard for anyone — developers, business owners or residents — to know what will be allowed at a particular site or in a given neighborhood.

Borah and his allies want professional planners and supposedly nonpolitical commissioners to make decisions on the basis of planning principles, not political considerations or special circumstances.

Critics’ views

But critics raise objections such as these:

— In a democracy, decisions are supposed to be made by elected officials, not by bureaucrats or members of appointed boards who don’t answer to voters.

— Taking the council out of the decision-making process for conditional uses is likely to increase the number of appeals to the courts, where deep-pocketed, well-organized developers and business owners often have a clear advantage.

— Because council members want to please their constituents, they often are more sympathetic to residents than the Planning Commission. In recent years, for example, the commission endorsed plans for an Iberville Street hotel that was opposed by many French Quarter residents and finally was rejected by the council.

— The proposed amendment says all land-use regulations and decisions must be consistent with the master plan, but it never says who would decide that, apparently leaving it up to the courts. Also left unclear is who would decide what “adequate appropriations” for the Planning Commission would be, apparently leaving that up to the mayor and council.

— Although the council could not amend the master plan more than once a year, that restriction might do nothing more than briefly delay projects not allowed by the plan. The amendment also would not prevent the council from adopting changes to the plan opposed by the Planning Commission.

Bruce Eggler can be reached at beggler@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3320.

Jun 18, 2008

Source: Times-Picayune

Filed under: Ethics, On the Ballot, Orleans Parish

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