For some homeowners in historic neighborhoods of New Orleans, the latest city demand for money is going to be an “air raid” that could be costly and quite possibly hazardous.
Owners of buildings with features such as galleries, balconies, stoops or fences that extend out into public space — and have done so, in many cases, for decades or even centuries — are being faced with a choice: pay the city rent in perpetuity on terms the administration sets or be denied permits for any work, no matter how small the job.
About 150 properties a year are now being asked to sign such agreements, which include liability waivers aimed at protecting the city from lawsuits, at an annual cost that can run to thousands of dollars.
That’s thousands every year, on top of property taxes and other fees.
This new policy is an air raid, using the supposed value of air rights to squeeze more cash out of property owners.
We worry that it will encourage people to put off needed repairs to buildings that are part of the city’s historic fabric.
It also could, of course, encourage people to get around the rules to save some money, which would be wrong and cause more problems with enforcement and potential damage to resale values of historic structures.
The Louisiana Constitution forbids “donations” of value from government. Obviously, this is worked around in a thousand ways, as the state’s lavish giveaways of cash and property as economic development incentives demonstrate.
In this case, we think the constitutional language is being interpreted in a way to collect more from property owners.
“It seems nothing more than a money grab: ‘You’re using our property, and we’re going to make you pay for it,’ ” said Justin Schmidt, a land-use attorney with the firm Adams and Reese. “But you allowed me to do this way back when, so I should be grandfathered in.”
For the city to seek some compensation for the use of public spaces — what are known as servitudes and “air rights” — is not new, nor is it unique to New Orleans. But Schmidt, who has been handling similar issues for 18 years, said the rules and costs used to be more reasonable.
For years, he said, the city would seek agreements with property owners only for new construction that encroached on the city’s servitudes or when a property owner was seeking some sort of zoning change that required review by planners.
We urge the City Council to look into whether the old policy is both legal and sensible. Servitudes should not be a city racket for cash.