Local lawmakers will soon face three decisions that could affect how developers build in Baton Rouge and the propensity for homes flooding here during future heavy rainstorms.
A new proposal would require developers to build houses that could withstand floods from a 25-year storm rather than a 10-year storm, as is currently case. The proposal would also require developers to increase the amount of storage for water soaking up a floodplain by 10 percent.
The middle-ground proposal comes on the heels of a more extreme call to halt all development in high-risk floodplains for six months until the Metro Council receives recommendations to help make neighborhoods more flood proof. Recent planning and zoning meetings have been crammed with crowds asking commissioners to reject new developments because they are in areas that flooded in August 2016.
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But the Metro Council could also make a third choice, rejecting pushes that would pause or reform development and continue to allow developers to build to the current standards that even the East Baton Rouge Planning Director says need a revamp.
"These are things that I have suggested as common sense approaches to updating the UDC," said city-parish Planning Director Frank Duke of the proposal to build to a 25-year storm and to increase floodplain storage by 10 percent. "Am I going to say these are the only changes that need to be made? No."
Councilwoman Erika Green, who is pushing the changes to the UDC along with Councilman Dwight Hudson, said she could not support a moratorium on development. But Green's north Baton Rouge district was one of the worst hit by the floods last year, and she said her constituents are living in fear of flooding again without seeing policy changes to prevent a repeat.
Those same concerns from constituents led Councilman Buddy Amoroso to propose the moratorium on new development until the ordinances are tightened. The Metro Council is expected to consider Amoroso's proposal on Wedbesday, while they are expected to vote Oct. 25 on the proposal from Green and Hudson.
Amoroso argues that constituents want reassurance that local government is trying to prevent their homes from flooding in the future, and the best way to do that is through a moratorium.
"If [Hurricane] Harvey would have hit Baton Rouge, we would have had the same type of flooding we had a year ago," Amoroso said. "I don't think the public wants business as usual."
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But multiple people said a moratorium could lead to consequences more far-reaching than a short-term lack of development.
Jason Engen, the chairman of the Planning Commission, said he wants to see data that shows whether a moratorium on development would help Baton Rouge. Freezing development in high-risk floodplains could hurt the all-important tax base, he said.
"If at the end of the moratorium, the result is building to a 25-year event, is that something the community could agree on right now?" Engen asked.
Both Amoroso and Hudson — conservatives who frequently vote the same way and echo each other on the council — said they do not see their proposals as being in competition.
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Amoroso said he liked the changes that Hudson and Green have proposed, though he still wants the moratorium. And Hudson said he does not see the sense in waiting to change the UDC when the Metro Council knows what changes need to be made.
While the UDC is under review, researchers at LSU have also started on a three-year project meant to help Baton Rouge cope with disasters in the future. The team received a $3 million grant in July from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Jeff Carney, who is leading the effort as the director of LSU's coastal sustainability studio, said quick-fixes cannot be the only answers. Carney said developers and government do not need to look at changes in an "us versus them" mentality, but that his team will try to find ways to make new types of building palatable to builders.
They will also study how Baton Rouge can maintain the character of its neighborhoods amid possible changes like raising the base-flood elevation for homes.
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"If there's a recommendation I can make right now, it's definitely that this is not a drainage problem alone," Carney said in a recent interview. "It's not a design problem. It's not a health problem. It's bridging all of those things together."