The New Orleans City Council voted Thursday to prohibit sightseeing buses capable of amphibious transportation, so-called “duck boats,” from operating in the French Quarter, Bywater, Marigny and elsewhere in City Council districts A and C.
An attorney for the tour operator seeking to introduce the vehicles to New Orleans said the ban, though it applies to only two council districts, effectively means the duck boats won’t operate anywhere in the city.
“It’s styled as only a ban for districts A and C. But make no mistake, banning these tours in districts A and C bans this business from the city of New Orleans,” Scott Whittaker said. “The business model requires operation in districts A and C.”
The ban was sponsored by Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer in her last meeting as the council’s representative from District C and was approved 5-1.
Gray Line Tours began petitioning the city in late 2012 for a permit to operate a “Ride the Ducks” franchise in New Orleans. The company wanted its three “ducks” to be able to pick up customers in the French Quarter before heading out to a boat launch in District A for a cruise on Lake Pontchartrain.
The boats, popular tourist attractions in other waterfront cities, are based on amphibious World War II supply transport vehicles. They can carry about 40 people each.
The Gray Line request had the support of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp. and the French Quarter Business Association.
Palmer said her office has been in negotiations with the operator since the proposal was introduced in an effort to craft an ordinance that would ensure the boats operated safely and didn’t add to traffic congestion in the French Quarter but that she wasn’t satisfied with the results of those discussions.
Instead of introducing a compromise ordinance that would have allowed the boats to operate, perhaps with a set route in and out of the French Quarter, she moved to ban them from her district and that of Councilwoman Susan Guidry altogether.
“I frankly do not feel that these vehicles belong anywhere in our city, as I have received a number of emails and calls from constituents who are concerned that they are a safety hazard,” Palmer said.
She said the addition of duck boats to the French Quarter at a time when the neighborhood is struggling to accommodate 9 million annual visitors and having difficulty managing many other varied interests of residents and business operators would be “untenable to an already untenable situation.”
“We cannot further complicate things by allowing the introduction into our city of another type of large vehicle that operates in heavily trafficked and congested areas,” Palmer said.
The ban had the support of the French Quarter Management District and the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates organization.
Allowing the duck boats to operate in the French Quarter would lead to a flood of requests for similar vehicles from other companies that don’t have as positive a local track record as New Orleans Steamboat Co. and Gray Line, said Gail Cabot of the management district.
That would disrupt the historic fabric of the French Quarter, Cabot and Meg Lousteau, of VCPORA, said.
“Once you let this novelty vehicle into the French Quarter, you have to let all of them in,” Cabot said. “The French Quarter is a historic district. It is not an amusement park.”
The proposed ban came as a surprise to some council members, who said they were under the impression an agreement was in the works.
“It saddens me that we have to sit here and tell a company that’s a stalwart, an outstanding company, that they can’t do business anywhere in this city, at any time, under any circumstances,” Council President Jackie Clarkson said. “I thought this was being worked out to where there was a compromise.”
Whittaker argued that a ban on a “type of business” was unfair, especially when other specialty vehicles such as party buses and stretch Hummers are allowed in the French Quarter with little or no restriction. He said the tour operator commissioned studies that found the boats would not add to traffic congestion or create a safety risk. The boats, in fact, would benefit the French Quarter by moving some visitors out of the area for tours, he said.
“The opposition to this business basically boils down to one thing, and that’s that some French Quarter residents believe that the appearance of these amphibious vehicles is somehow offensive or out of character to the ambience and the historic quality of the French Quarter. That’s what it really boils down to,” Whittaker said. “We worked very hard on a compromise ordinance, and we would be here supporting a compromise ordinance. It’s very unfortunate that compromise ordinance was not introduced.”
Councilman James Gray wondered if voting down the duck boats would prompt a lawsuit against the city.
“I think if we vote for this, we’re making a mistake,” he said.
He was the only council member to vote against the ban. The measure passed 5-1, with Councilwoman Stacy Head absent.