St. Tammany Parish has a choice in how it confronts inevitable growth: It can allow continued suburban sprawl, eating up more and more of the rural land that attracted many residents to the parish, or it can create centers where people can live, work and play in a relatively small area, a panel of experts from the Urban Land Institute said at a public meeting.
The panelists called the latter approach the “village in the woods” pattern — one that could create the equivalent of 25 Covington-like centers — and urged parish leaders to embrace it.
The Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit educational and research institute established in 1936, says it provides leadership on responsible use of land. Advisory panels, like the one that visited St. Tammany, are among its activities.
The panel of land-use and urban planning experts spent most of last week in St. Tammany under the sponsorship of the parish government and Greater New Orleans Inc.
Panel members toured the parish Monday, interviewed 75 people on Tuesday and went through what the members called a “mound” of studies. They presented their recommendations at the St. Tammany Parish Council chambers Friday morning. A more detailed report will follow in a few months.
Unlike many areas, St. Tammany has the prospect of continued growth, something that panel leader Jim Heid called a blessing. The parish’s population was 233,737 in 2010, and the panel projected it could nearly double in as little as 15 years.
“What will you do with this growth?” Heid — a sustainable-development adviser and urban planner — asked an audience of parish officials and business and community leaders gathered to hear the group’s recommendations.
The panel members said their day of interviews made it clear that St. Tammany residents know what they value about their parish: the quality of life, natural beauty, recreational amenities, safety, good schools and families.
However, continuing with the same land-use and development patterns will erode St. Tammany’s character and quality of life, Heid said.
“You’ll end up looking like Anywhere, USA, and you will pass on to your children ongoing infrastructure and social costs that are unsustainable,” he said.
The panel suggested an approach that involves more dense development, allowing people to walk instead of drive to work, shop and find recreation, while providing a wide range of housing choices that will allow multiple generations to live in the parish.
If development continues in its existing patterns, Heid said, 50 percent of the parish’s land will be eaten up. The vision suggested by the panel would use up just 6 percent of remaining undeveloped land, he said.
While the seven panelists looked at the entire parish, they focused especially on a 28,000-acre area in south-central St. Tammany bounded on the south by Interstate 12 and on the north by La. 36. The parish is building an advanced campus in the area, which also is home to the Coroner’s Office.
That part of the parish is poised for growth, Heid said, calling it a blank slate. Panelists suggested using it as a pilot area for trying out new approaches through a small area plan or master plan. They said the parish should capitalize on public assets already in that area, such as the advanced campus, but should also work together with private landowners, an approach that has been used in other communities.
Michael Stern, an architect and planner, talked about creating multiple communities like Covington, pointing to its downtown area as an example of development that allows people to walk from their homes to work and other destinations.
Creating a “village in the woods” pattern would reduce the need to drive everywhere, Stern said.
One such model that the parish already has is TerraBella, a development that bills itself as being based on early 20th century small-town life. But Stern said there’s a greater need for mixed-use development.
Panelists made special note of St. Tammany’s traffic woes. Ladd Keith of the University of Arizona said that 82 percent of vehicle trips in St. Tammany are made by people driving alone, well above the national average of 70 percent.
Traffic is a deterrent for companies that might consider locating in St. Tammany, he said. People look for bicycling and walking options in deciding where to live, he said, and companies are influenced by where their workforce wants to live.
Adding more lanes to highways or major streets isn’t a solution to congestion, Keith said, and some cities have even begun removing lanes.
While St. Tammany is not at the point of needing to get rid of lanes, he recommended employer incentives for carpooling as one way to reduce traffic. Another possibility is to turn the Tammany Trace into a loop, something that he said would be easier to do before further nearby development than after.
Water management also was a major focus of the panel’s recommendations. Engineer Margaret Doyle said land use is the key to managing water and that St. Tammany has the necessary tools in place, including a 2014 parish watershed management study and a study on imposing drainage impact fees for new development that was done in 2012.
Impact fees — which require developers to pay some or all of the cost of providing public services to a new development — are a necessary evil, Doyle said. While some people see them as an impediment to development, she said everyone needs to pay their fair share.
She suggested that the parish look at creating community facility districts, which sell bonds paid for by new residents to finance things like parks, roadways, drainage and sewerage.
St. Tammany’s comprehensive plan is 15 years old, the panel noted, suggesting that the parish needs to implement some of the good work it’s already done.
Panelists especially focused on the parish’s plans to rewrite its development code, suggesting that the south-central area they studied can be a pilot area to test out changes in the code.
Mike Saucier, a real estate developer, told the panel that the Army Corps of Engineers drives much of what can be done in the parish because of wetlands mitigation requirements. The panelists agreed that St. Tammany will have to work closely with the Corps. But Heid suggested that the federal agency might agree to allow more flexibility in the pilot area as a way to try things without establishing a broad precedent.
Gina Campo, chief administrative officer for the parish, said after the presentation that the panelists had praised the parish for doing its homework. “We know what we need to do,” and the panel provided some good suggestions on what the next steps should be, she said.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.