In The News › Some Adjustments are Needed

Feb 25, 2008

Source: The Urban Conservancy

Some Adjustments are Needed

Some Adjustments are Needed

Feb 25 2008

A single opposing vote.

A single vote in opposition to a broadly supported neighborhood request to the Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA) to reconsider a decision by the Department of Safety and Permits has left the neighborhood facing the prospect of a high-volume, formula fast-food outlet on the corner of Magazine and Nashville.

Article 14 of New Orleans’ Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance (CZO) establishes the BZA. Many of the zoning appeals in our city go before this board of seven members, who are appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council to serve 5-year terms.

The only requirement for BZA members is that they be real estate owning, qualified voters of New Orleans. To this board is entrusted decisions that can affect a neighborhood, or the entire city. In a nutshell, they have a lot of power, though no requirements to bring urban planning or zoning expertise to the table.

On January 8, 2008, the Audubon Riverside Neighborhood Association (ARNA) and Smart Growth for Louisiana filed an appeal with the BZA. The nonprofits asked the Board to overrule the decision of the Department of Safety and Permits that classified “The Pita Pit” as a cafeteria restaurant rather than a fast food restaurant. This less intense use would allow Pita Pit to operate at the corner of Magazine and Nashville in a B-2 Neighborhood Business District without submitting to the conditional use process required by the CZO.

Specifically, the organizations requested (1) that Safety and Permits abide by the language of the CZO regarding fast food restaurants, (2) that the decision to issue a permit to Pita Pit be reversed, and (3) that the development at issue be classified as a Fast Food Restaurant under Article 2.2 (#153 ( c )) of the CZO. The organizations had letters showing broad support from neighborhood associations, citizen organizations, and concerned citizens throughout the city requiring a fast food operator to obey the law and to respect their neighborhood.

This is the third time since Katrina that Safety and Permits has issued a fast food restaurant a permit to operate on Magazine Street without going through the conditional use process. The Garden District Association is currently challenging the Subway on Louisiana and Magazine. And Safety and Permits now admits that they wrongly allowed Quiznos on Washington and Magazine to “slip through” after Katrina.

Yet Safety and Permits continues to point to these two restaurants as precedents for permitting yet another fast food chain as a cafeteria style restaurant, circumventing the CZO’s provisions for safe guarding neighborhoods.

Approval of the appeal would have given the City Planning Commission staff the opportunity to study this controversial project and to make recommendations concerning its suitability. The neighborhood, in turn, would have had the opportunity to have its voices heard.

The request to appeal was denied despite the fact that 3 of the 5 BZA members present voted in favor of the neighborhoods, and only one voted against (the fifth member abstained). An appeal to deny requires 4 votes in favor to pass.

According to the governing documents of the BZA, ARNA and Smart Growth should have received a written summary of the facts of the appeal and reasons for the decision of the board to deny (Section 14.3. Standards and Reasons for Decisions)

The organizations received a brief notice stating only that “no action” was taken because four votes were needed to overrule Safety and Permits; therefore the incorrect classification of Safety and Permits stood.

Frustrated neighbors feel the system did not work for them. While the permitting of The Pita Pit on a street that is not zoned for fast food chains is an issue of great importance, in the final analysis it is that absence of accountability, transparency and consistency in the Department of Safety and Permits and the BZA that is most troubling. These are government agencies that are supposed to uphold the laws and work for citizens.

At present, ARNA has regrouped to address these broader concerns while continuing to address “irregularities” in the way The Pita Pit was handled before both agencies. The Pita Pit has simply served to spotlight the dysfunction of these city departments.

The Bureau of Governmental Research in its August 2006 report recommended a charter revision aimed at improving the board. The proposed language would require the city to adopt “an ordinance authorizing the creation of a nominating committee to nominate members of the Board of Zoning Adjustments as vacancies occur. The committee shall consist of the head of the largest urban planning program at a university in the City, the head of the largest planning organization in Louisiana, a representative from the business community, a representative from an historic preservation organization, and a representative from a neighborhood organization. The committee shall nominate three persons for each vacancy and shall submit these nominations to the mayor, who shall select one of the persons nominated to fill the vacancy.”

While this will not completely remove politics from the board, it will at least make sure their decisions are grounded in expertise.

Feb 25, 2008

Source: The Urban Conservancy

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