I am writing in response to your editorial urging adoption of the draft Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance. The editorial takes issue with the Bureau of Governmental Research’s recent report, “A Trojan Horse in the Draft CZO: Article 5 Puts Years of Planning at Risk.” That article basically allows the City Council to grant exceptions from the zoning rules — including those governing use, density, height, area, bulk, yards, parking, loading and signage — for “planned developments.” To be eligible, a developer has to provide features that create a “substantial benefit” to the city. There is a long, wide-ranging and nonexclusive list of such features.

BGR is not opposed to including in the CZO carefully crafted provisions to allow appropriate planned developments for large sites. Rather, it is taking issue with Article 5 because it is overly broad and unnecessarily vague.

BGR recently recommended eliminating the chapter because the prospects for correcting the fundamental flaws are bleak. In the words of The Advocate, “it’s very late in the day to suggest that the council rewrite it on the fly at this very last step.”

We’d like to make clear that BGR did not raise its concerns late in the day. We provided extensive oral and written comments to the City Planning Commission on each CZO draft, beginning in 2011. While Article 5 changed over time, our fundamental concerns were not addressed.

What are they?

  • First, a single building as small as 10,000 square feet can qualify as a “planned development.” Rather than providing needed flexibility for development within large areas, it opens the door to spot zoning in the historic areas.
  • Second, the list of features that can be considered to determine whether there is a substantial public benefit is a grab bag of minor and major project features. The draft CZO provides no guidance as to how decision makers would determine whether the public benefits are sufficient to merit zoning exceptions. It does not, for the most part, tie the exceptions to metrics or a clear set of project requirements.
  • Third, there is no obvious correlation between a goal and the basis for granting an exception. For example, the bases for granting exceptions for the adaptive reuses of buildings in the historic districts have nothing to do with the obstacles to development.

Together, the small area size, numerous grounds for waivers, numerous types of waivers, inadequate guidelines for granting waivers and vague strategy give decision makers an inappropriate level of discretion and create an undesirable level of uncertainty for the city’s residents.

If you like the let’s-make-a-deal approach to zoning and an atmosphere of unpredictability in the development process, you’ll love Article 5.

Janet R. Howard

president and CEO, Bureau of Governmental Research

New Orleans