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N.O. voters to decide power behind plan
Monday, October 27, 2008

It would guide all land-use decisions


By Bruce Eggler, Staff writer

New Orleans voters will decide Nov. 4 whether to amend the City Charter to give the city's forthcoming master plan the force of law, meaning that all zoning and land-use decisions would have to conform to the plan.

The master plan is supposed to guide the city's development for the next 20 years, creating a framework to guide decision-makers in promoting goals such as economic development, better housing, improved infrastructure and environmental quality while preserving the city's architectural and cultural legacies.

The City Planning Commission has hired a team of consultants to create the master plan, which is expected to be finished by late 2009.

The charter amendment also would require the city for the first time to create "a system for organized and effective neighborhood participation in government."

Giving the master plan the force of law is intended to make it more difficult for the City Council to change zoning laws or grant exceptions so as to advance or block specific projects.

Lawyer and preservationist William Borah, who for years waged an almost single-handed campaign for "a master plan with the force of law," says the charter amendment would end "planning by surprise."

"Despite the way the current zoning ordinance classifies the use of a particular piece of property, the city's major developments usually hinge on the will of the City Council member in whose district the development happens to lie," Borah wrote recently. "If the text of the zoning ordinance does not permit a development desired by a public official, the ordinance is simply amended and the zoning map altered."

In a report urging support of the amendment, the nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research says: "Planning and land-use decisions have for years caused discontent in New Orleans, among both those focused on economic development and those who feel deprived of a meaningful voice in decisions affecting their neighborhoods. In a 2003 study of the problem, BGR found that land-use decisions do not emerge from a fair, rational or consistent process, and that the City Council holds unbridled discretion in important areas."

The BGR report calls the charter amendment "the necessary first step toward rationalizing land-use decision making and enhancing neighborhood participation."

--- Plenty of criticism ---

The City Council voted 7-0 in July to endorse the amendment and put it on the ballot. The proposal drew support at the time from groups such as the Preservation Resource Center, Downtown Development District, Vieux Carre Property Owners, Holy Cross Neighborhood Association and Eastern New Orleans Neighborhood Advisory Commission.

However, the proposal has since stirred up considerable criticism, with most of it focused on the fact that voters are being asked to give legal force to a master plan when they have no idea what the plan will say.

"What is the rush to give force of law to a plan that doesn't exist yet?" one audience member asked during a recent forum held to help the consultants craft the plan.

The New Orleans branch of the NAACP came out against the charter amendment last week. President Danatus King said the group was worried that the plan might resurrect the post-Katrina idea of "reducing the city's footprint" by turning some depopulated neighborhoods, such as the Lower 9th Ward and parts of eastern New Orleans, into "green space" where people no longer could live.

The Rev. Marshall Truehill Jr., a former chairman of the Planning Commission, responded that the NAACP was "spreading misinformation" and displaying "gross ignorance of the planning process."

Truehill, who is black, said, "The African-American community has been repeatedly victimized by ad hoc, whimsical and singularly discretionary planning on the part of the City Council" and the charter amendment would help "wrest power from the hands of the powerful" and give the people "a greater stake in the democratic process."

--- Long mandated ---

The City Charter for many years has mandated creation of a master plan to guide the city's long-term development, but there has been no requirement that zoning decisions or other actions conform to it, and such a plan was never prepared.

Goody Clancy, a Boston planning and architectural firm, was hired to lead the effort to create the master plan and at the same time update the city's notoriously dysfunctional zoning ordinance. It will be paid at least $2 million.

Although the consultants' two tasks differ from the spate of recovery planning that took place after Hurricane Katrina, Goody Clancy was among the planning firms involved in creating the Unified New Orleans Plan after Katrina. In addition, the consultants have reviewed the recommendations of the Bring New Orleans Back plan, the Unified New Orleans Plan and the so-called Lambert Plan to see which ones can be incorporated into their current work.

Besides mandating creation of a master plan and giving it the force of law, the charter amendment would 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 participation in drafting of the master plan.

Details of how that participation will take place have yet to be decided.

--- Controversy likely ---

After a master plan has been prepared and approved by the City Planning Commission, it will go to the City Council, which can adopt it, reject it or amend it. Any amendments would have to go back to the commission for comment.

Once the master plan is adopted, all zoning and land-use laws and decisions, and many other government actions, must conform to it, though controversy is likely to arise in some cases over whether specific zoning decisions or other actions uphold or violate some of the plan's necessarily broad guidelines.

The plan must be reviewed and updated at least every five years and can be amended once a year, with the Planning Commission making recommendations and the council having the final word. The commission would have to hold public meetings on proposed amendments, including in specifically affected neighborhoods.

City Council President Jackie Clarkson, chief sponsor of the charter change, dropped two important provisions from the ballot proposition before the council voted on it.

One provision would have eliminated the council as the decision-maker on requests for city conditional-use permits, giving that power to the City Planning Commission instead. The second would have set up a five-member committee to nominate members of the Planning Commission and the Board of Zoning Adjustments. The mayor will continue to choose their members, although the council must ratify his choices.

The charter amendment still lays out requirements for initial orientation and annual "continuous education" training for members of both bodies in subjects such as land-use law, historic preservation, economic development and ethics.

. . . . . . .

The official ballot proposition can be found at the City Council's Web site, http://www.nocitycouncil.com/. Click on "November 4 Ballot Propositions." The BGR analysis can be found at http://www.bgr.org/. Look under "The November Ballot."

Bruce Eggler can be reached at beggler@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3320.




September 2006