With members of the New Orleans City Council and neighborhood activists debating how much decisions by the council on zoning and other land-use issues should be bound by the city’s master plan, the Bureau of Governmental Research has waded into the fray, largely siding with those seeking a strict interpretation of the document.

In a statement released this week, the nonpartisan organization sides with the activists and some council members in arguing that the council’s land-use decisions must comply with portions of the master plan. But beyond the basics of zoning, it says, the plan serves only as a guide for council decisions, and it notes that even where it carries the force of law, the master plan itself can be changed, though only after a lengthy process of public hearings and discussions.

The divide among council members largely hinges on how much the language of the master plan should be open to interpretation.

Councilwomen Stacy Head and Susan Guidry have argued that the master plan carries the force of law and have largely looked to City Planning Commission reports on whether a particular project complies with the plan in determining whether to support it, while other council members have supported a looser approach that allows the plan’s strictures to be regarded more as guidelines.

On that point, BGR sides with those seeking a strict interpretation of the master plan, noting that the City Charter states that all zoning ordinances and amendments must be consistent with the overarching document and any that aren’t “shall be null and void.”

However, the organization argues that changes can be made to fix problems, such as a property in the Irish Channel that was mistakenly designated as park land in the document.

While that process is more complex than the zoning changes regularly approved by the council — it requires a review of the master plan by the Planning Commission and can be undertaken only once a year — it provides “a predictable mechanism for changing the ground rules.”

“As time goes on, flaws will emerge, inconsistencies will be revealed and amendments (made through the review process) will be needed,” according to the BGR paper. “But where the land use plan provides clear directives as to land use decisions, decision makers must adhere to it. After all, it’s the law.”