As developers seek to build new subdivisions across Baton Rouge, residents anxious after last year's floods have grown increasingly concerned about whether more pavement, more houses and more development will ratchet up their risk of becoming second-time flood survivors.
Plots of land that flooded last year are still fair game to develop. But their potential neighbors are now demanding to know whether the developers who build on them and the city officials who approve those plans are properly considering the flood-related ramifications, spurred on by the belief that half-baked decisions over the past several decades led to flooding in neighborhoods that should have stayed dry.
A proposed "Lakes at Jones Creek" development set to soon be considered by the Planning Commission illustrates the conflict. The vacant land flooded a year ago, as did the homes in many developments adjacent to the property.
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Developer Steven Duplechain said his engineers have ensured that his proposed 425-home subdivision just south of Jones Creek would not adversely affect the existing neighborhoods, should water in the creek start to rise. But nearby residents are distrustful of whether that's actually the case and have already started packing into public meetings about the issue by the hundreds.
Similar skepticism has shadowed other planning and zoning debates since floods in August 2016 inundated Baton Rouge. Neighbors were similarly worried and outraged when developers received green lights in the past year to build The Willows at Bayou Fountain subdivision and The Sanctuary development near the Amite River, among others.
"After that major flood event, we have not looked at the Unified Development Code and saw what changes should have been for over a year," said Metro Councilman Buddy Amoroso, who represents the district that would house the Lakes at Jones Creek. "That's an indictment on me personally; I'll take the blame. We're still building like it's 1994, we need to look at changing it."
Amoroso is bringing a proposal to his fellow council members that would open the door for Baton Rouge to change its standards for building in high-risk flood zones, such as the one where the Lakes at Jones Creek is planned. Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome has also commissioned engineering firm HNTB to create a stormwater master plan for the city-parish that is supposed to take a more holistic look at drainage.
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Jason Engen, chairman of the Baton Rouge Planning Commission, said nearly every development that comes before them sparks concerns from neighbors about drainage and traffic. But the law forbids developers from increasing the amount of water coming off a site in volume or capacity, which he said is a key consideration.
Developers are required to submit drainage impact and stormwater management plans that show how they will address runoff and drainage capacity for a 10-year storm event. In special hazard zones, like the Lakes at Jones Creek, contractors are required to take steps like building with flood-resistant materials and placing on-site waste disposals in areas that would prevent them from contaminating homes during floods.
"New developments may not make the situation any better for neighborhoods around them," Engen said. "But they can't, by law, make it any worse."
Frank Duke, the city-parish planning director, said Baton Rouge has less stringent building requirements than other areas where he has worked, including Florida and North Carolina. Developers in Baton Rouge are required to build for stormwater management based on so-called "10 year-storms," but Duke said he would be interested in exploring potential changes to require building for more intense weather events.
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But Duke also said it is not fair to hold developers, property owners and others to standards that don't yet exist.
For homeowners, however, fairness would be keeping existing residences dry.
"We have the right to protect our property from future flooding," said Mary Stewart, president of the Country Manor Homeowner Association, which would neighbor the Lakes at Jones Creek.
"Why are we even looking at new development until this report is done?" she asked, referencing the stormwater master plan.
Duplechain's proposed development on 178 acres would be bordered by Jones Creek on the north, Coursey Cove and Parkview Oaks neighborhoods on the south, Jones Creek Road to the east and Country Manor on the west. The 330-page stormwater management plan engineers from Quality Engineering and Surveying LLC created for the development show that runoff water would be routed to at least six new ponds and four existing ones.
Duplechain acknowledged that the area is low-lying and in proximity to waterways that flooded last year. But he also said it is doable to develop the Lakes at Jones Creek in a smart way that does not create additional flooding problems.
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"It's taken a lot of effort to ensure it can be developed in a way that won't impact the surrounding neighborhoods and that it can support itself," said Duplechain, who owns GSD Development. "It would be unwise not to consider the impact of Jones Creek and the back flooding from the Amite River basin that can occur in that area. All of the property in that area is subject to back flooding. You have to consider that."
M.E. Cormier, the president of the Woodland Ridge Home Owner's Association, got more than a foot of water in her home when the floods hit last year. Woodland Ridge is north of Jones Creek and the proposed development.
She called the plot of land where the Lakes at Jones Creek would go "a vital green space sandwiched between at least four neighborhoods that flooded."
"The green space without a shadow of a doubt helped dissipate some of the water that would have been in our homes," Cormier said. "We received 1 to 3 feet instead of 3 to 6 feet of water in our homes."
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Both Cormier and Stewart were critical of the idea that detention ponds would be enough to manage the drainage. They said the ponds may help while the development is new but could lose their effectiveness over time if they are not properly looked after.
Duplechain agreed that the effectiveness of the ponds would be diminished if they fill with silt. But he countered that he will require homeowners to contribute money to an association charged with maintaining the ponds. He also said they will work to prevent the flooding of neighbors.
"If they're unwilling to accept the science of that, I do not know the alternative I can put before them that will convince them that we will not contribute to their flooding," he said.
The Planning Commission was initially expected to vote on whether to approve the Lakes at Jones Creek development at its Sept. 18 meeting, but Amoroso has requested a deferral until Oct. 16.
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Cormier questioned what would have happened without the outcry from citizens.
"Why is the onus on responsible citizens to check and balance this?" she asked. "Why is the onus on responsible citizens to be aware of the situation and research the situation?"
Kahli Cohran, president of the Baton Rouge chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said the city-parish needs to be creative in its approach to drainage. He pointed to years of building roads in Baton Rouge with the narrow thought of moving cars rather than thinking about pedestrians, bike riders, mass transit and mobility.
But he also cautioned against equating all new development with negative effects, saying that new developments can also present opportunities to improve drainage, traffic and other infrastructure concerns.
"They don't always have to be looked at as more development, negative impacts," Cohran said.