The Lafayette City-Parish Council on Tuesday will consider a rezoning proposal that could present one of the first tests of a new ordinance aimed at reducing development-related flood risk. It would also test the patience of some south Lafayette residents who fear the proposal would increase their flooding exposure, which is already worse than anyone can remember.
The residents opposed to turning a seven-acre grassy field into a parking lot in the 300 block of Canberra Road say flooding in the area behind Johnston Street has sharply worsened over the last couple years, and they blame rapid commercial development. The cluster of pavement-heavy car dealerships that has popped up is of particular concern, they say.
There are a minimum of six dealerships in the half-mile stretch of Johnston Street between South City Parkway and Canberra Road, and more have come with the development of South City Parkway. Some date back to the 2000s and earlier; Tiffany Swartz said the boom in dealerships started a year or two after she moved to D’Evereux Drive near Canberra Road a decade ago.
Back then, she said, stormwater would accumulate in the ditch, but “everything always drained beautifully.” That’s no longer the case, she said.
“During the November rains Canberra Road flooded. It overflowed and our little coulee here was getting white caps,” Swartz said. “Something must be wrong with the drainage because now we get tons of water, in spite of the ditches being dry.”
Another car dealership is set to get underway if, as expected, the council rezones the field to allow for the parking lot, which would serve an existing Infiniti dealership along with a new Acura franchise planned for next door.
The owners of the two dealerships, brothers John Fabre and David Fabre, plan to invest more than $7 million in acquiring the lot, new construction and compliance with a three-month-old ordinance requiring new development to reduce storm runoff by 15 percent, John Fabre said. Their pending deal to purchase the lot is contingent on the rezoning, he said.
Fabre, who with his brother owns three dealerships in Baton Rouge in addition to the one in Lafayette, said he’s never been required to reduce runoff prior to construction, and that it creates uncertainty about the total development cost. The Planning Commission will dictate compliance measures following a drainage study, and Fabre said those measures could include a detention pond, underground piping and dips in the parking lot itself.
“I’m kind of scared to know myself,” Fabre said when asked for an estimate of the cost of compliance. “What I don’t want to have is the engineers come back and say half this seven acres has to be a pond to meet the standards. That could be an issue.”
Fabre said he’s optimistic the required measures won’t be cost prohibitive, but he said he can’t be sure. This is the first time he’s been required to reduce runoff, as opposed to merely maintaining existing levels.
“It takes a lot of engineering just to break even. Now they want 15 percent better than that,” Fabre said. “So stand by.”
Some residents aren’t confident the new ordinance will protect them, considering a drainage situation they say is clearly worsening. Floodwaters entering homes in the front part of the neighborhood, away from the Vermilion River and toward Johnston Street, was “unheard of” in the 1990s, when Aimee Boyd’s husband grew up in the house they currently own on Crestlawn Drive, Boyd said.
But it recently happened twice in 15 months, with the Great Flood of August 2016 and again in November. Boyd figures development along South City Parkway within the last five years is one cause for increased flooding, as water rushes from there southward to Crestlawn Drive and Canberra Road.
“You’re asking this neighborhood to take on a seven-acre parking lot where we are not draining too well as it is. That just doesn’t make too much sense,” said Boyd, who helped organize opposition to the proposal.
Councilwoman Liz Hebert said she has coaxed several concessions from Fabre to address a variety of neighborhood concerns, including the addition of sidewalks to both sides of the street, limiting test drives and three times the amount of landscaping than what’s required in the development code.
“I want it to be as strict as possible,” Hebert said. “I want to improve it as much as I can.”
The new ordinance should assuage all concerns over increased flood risk, Hebert said, but Boyd said she resents that the neighborhood is being used as one of the first “guinea pigs” for the new ordinance. Boyd reasons that stormwater must drain at some point, even if Fabre complies with new requirements to slow it down.
“I’m not sure how that will help any of us in a neighborhood where our drainage system already is not sufficient,” Boyd said. “I don’t know why it’s not sufficient, but that needs to be looked at before this project goes forward.”
Similar ordinances requiring runoff reductions are starting to catch on in flood-prone cities, said Greg Hoffmann, an environmental engineer who develops stormwater regulations for the Center for Watershed Protection, an Ellicott City, Maryland-based nonprofit organization. Such regulations can reduce flooding, Hoffmann said, but doing so requires ongoing maintenance of features such as detention ponds. What’s more, he said, local governments should have inspection programs to ensure the maintenance is occurring.
“If maintenance is important, which it is, I think somebody should be checking to make sure that it’s happening,” Hoffmann said. “If no one is watching, then problems can come up.”
The city-parish is not planning any such inspection program, but city engineer Larry Broussard said in an email that property owners would be held responsible if they are determined to be out of compliance for any reason.
“At some point you have to just trust the development community that they will continue to operate as approved,” Broussard said. “If determined otherwise, they will be held accountable to correct any issues that may arise.”