In The News › N.O. urged to revamp land use policies

Aug 4, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Planning Issues

N.O. urged to revamp land use policies

Times-Picayune (New Orleans)
N.O. urged to revamp land-use policies;
Council has too much power, nonprofit says
By Bruce Eggler, Staff writer

A New Orleans governmental watchdog group Thursday proposed revising the City Charter to limit the City Council’s role in land-use decisions, increase neighborhoods’ voice in such actions and create a city master plan with the force of law.

In suggesting that the City Planning Commission and the Board of Zoning Adjustments should gain greater authority at the council’s expense, the nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research also recommended changing how members of the two bodies are appointed to try to make them more professional and nonpolitical. The proposals seek to transform the long-entrenched manner in which the city makes day-to-day land-use decisions, beyond the current process to plan post-Katrina rebuilding.

“Land-use decisions do not emerge from a fair, rational or consistent process,” the bureau said, and “neighborhoods lack an adequate voice in their future.”

Voter approval needed

Amending the charter requires voters’ approval. The council could call an election on the proposed changes on its own, or it could be forced to do so if proponents submit petitions with the signatures of 10,000 registered voters. The bureau is not expected to lead such a drive. The bureau’s 12-page report, “Planning For a New Era: Proposed Changes for Land Use Decision Making in New Orleans,” basically spells out the charter changes needed to
implement several suggestions the group has presented before, plus a few new ideas.

In a 1993 report titled “Runaway Discretion: Land Use Decision Making in New Orleans,” the bureau said that the way decisions on land use are made in New Orleans suffers from “systemic weaknesses and an ad hoc approach” and needs a complete overhaul.
The result of the current flawed system, it said, “is widespread discontent, with the frustration of those focused on economic development matched by the frustration of residents who feel deprived of meaningful participation in the future of their neighborhoods.”

The earlier report recommended several changes in the way decisions are made, such as increasing the power of the Planning Commission and decreasing that of the City Council, which under current law can overrule all commission decisions.

The new report says the earlier suggestions “have taken on new life” since Hurricane Katrina “as part of the intense dialogue surrounding planning in New Orleans.”

The Bring New Orleans Back Commission appointed by Mayor Ray Nagin last fall to recommend how the city should be rebuilt after Katrina called for eliminating the council’s power to override decisions by the Planning Commission, the Historic District Landmarks Commission and the Board of Zoning Adjustments, with appeals of those agencies’ decisions possible only to the courts.

Master plan not done yet

The BNOB commission also called for completing work on the city’s long-delayed master plan and revised comprehensive zoning ordinance. The Planning Commission has been working on both documents for many years.

Among the chief faults the BGR sees in the current land-use decision-making process are the council’s “unbridled discretion” to overrule recommendations by the Planning Commission and its professional staff, and the council’s longtime tradition of deferring nearly all land -use decisions to the district member affected.

Many of the changes the organization proposes are designed to give greater legal force to the master plan for the city’s physical development, a document that the city is required by the present charter to have but which has never been completed.

Some critics of the current system for making land-use decisions attach great importance to the idea of a master plan, believing that it would take such decisions out of politics, even though the master plan could be modified by the council, just as current zoning laws can. They say that forcing politicians to jump an extra legal hurdle to make land-use changes would help prevent hasty or politically inspired decisions.

The charter changes proposed in the new report include:
— Having members of the Planning Commission and the Board of Zoning Adjustments nominated by a committee composed of a university urban planning teacher, the president of the state’s largest planning organization and representatives from the business community, a historic preservation organization and a neighborhood association. The committee would nominate three people for each vacancy and the mayor would choose one, to be confirmed by the council. At present, only the mayor nominates candidates for the two bodies, with no qualifications necessary, and the council confirms the choice.
— Spelling out more clearly the types of information to be included in the master plan and provide that it can be amended no more than once a year, except in response to natural disasters or other emergencies.
— Requiring that all land development regulations, including the comprehensive zoning ordinance, and all land-use decisions must be “consistent with the master plan.” Any nonconforming regulations or decisions would automatically become void. The Planning Commission would decide what rules and development proposals conform to the plan.
— Eliminating the council’s authority to rule on conditional-use applications, which are requests for building or other permits allowed only under special conditions. Those are often among the most controversial land-use proposals facing the Planning Commission and council.
— Eliminating a provision that lets the council overrule Planning Commission decisions by a two-thirds vote. People seeking to appeal commission rulings would have to file suit.
— Requiring that “recognized neighborhood organizations” be notified of public hearings on any proposals affecting their neighborhoods. The commission already tries to do that, but it’s not a legal requirement. The commission also would have to create a Neighborhood Participation Office, and the organizations would have the right to make recommendations to all city agencies on many issues.
— Requiring the city to “create a system for organized and effective neighborhood participation in land-use decisions and other issues that affect quality of life. It shall put neighborhoods and the citizens of New Orleans at the beginning of the land-use decision-making process, rather than the end.”

Besides reassuring residents that their neighborhoods would be safe from unwanted developments, the Bureau of Governmental Research said, the proposed charter changes would provide developers and business owners with “clear ground rules and a depoliticized process for development, reducing the uncertainty and complications that have historically discouraged outside investment in the city.”

The bureau’s report can be found at its Web site, www.bgr.org

Aug 4, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

Filed under: Orleans Parish, Planning Issues

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