Two neighborhood organizations representing residents of the French Quarter have filed a lawsuit against the executive director of the City Planning Commission and two city attorneys, alleging that they have intentionally withheld public records in violation of state law.
In a lawsuit filed last week in Civil District Court, Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates Inc. and French Quarter Citizens Inc. said the city “improperly withheld” records the organizations had requested related to the city’s comprehensive zoning ordinance.
The lawsuit names Planning Director Robert Rivers, City Attorney Sharonda Williams and Assistant City Attorney Anita Curran as defendants.
The dispute centers around French Quarter residents’ ongoing effort to have language in the current zoning law granting certain powers to the Vieux Carre Commission added to the new CZO, which will up for a final vote early next year.
Section 8.1 of the current law prohibits the Department of Safety and Permits from issuing permits for any change in the use of an existing building in the French Quarter without permission of the Vieux Carre Commission, unless the change in use would involve no change in a building’s exterior appearance. It also establishes four broad standards by which the VCC should evaluate projects, including that new structures and designs not “injuriously” affect the historic character of the French Quarter and that they “be in harmony” with the traditional architecture of the neighborhood.
That language often is cited by VCPORA and others in arguments against proposed new developments in the city’s most historic district, but the language is not included in the draft of the new CZO.
In their lawsuit, VCPORA and FQC quote Rivers as saying the section was omitted after “two city attorney opinions ... concluded that the language is confusing.”
The neighborhood organizations said they sent the city public-records requests for those opinions — “all petitions, motions, memoranda and other pleadings” — as well as any communications between the City Attorney’s Office and the Planning Commission discussing Section 8.1.
The organizations said the city responded that it could not meet the first request because its case files are not indexed by topic and therefore not searchable. The city said documents related to the second request were protected by attorney/client privilege.
The neighborhood groups are asking the court to compel the city to provide the information.
“We find it odd that the CPC hides behind the city attorney in ignoring this key provision, especially in light of several land use challenges to historic, residential areas,” FQC Director Carol Gniady said in a statement. “But when asked to provide these legal opinions or supportive communications, the city Law Department claims they can’t index their documents by topic.”