After four years of meetings and revisions, New Orleans’ new comprehensive zoning ordinance appears to be on its way to adoption by the end of the year.
The City Council on Thursday accepted the latest draft of the proposed ordinance from the City Planning Commission’s staff. The draft — presented as a staff report with a recommendation for adoption of text and map changes to the city’s land use laws — will now go to the commission for approval.
The comprehensive zoning ordinance is intended to give legal force to the guidelines and principles set forth in the city’s master plan for long-term development. It governs development on all private property in New Orleans and includes lists of permitted land uses for each zoning classification, as well as height limits, building sizes, setback requirements, urban design standards, operational rules and other regulations.
The current law governing zoning is more than four decades old and has been amended hundreds of times to address changes in the way New Orleanians live, work and play, but it still is antiquated in some regards and is difficult for even lawyers and real estate professionals to use.
It was called “incoherent, over-amended, outdated and vague” in an October 2003 study by the Bureau of Governmental Research. “Interpreting the zoning ordinance is well beyond the reach of the typical developer, not to mention the average citizen,” the report said.
Overhauling the rules has been a lengthy process. The City Planning Commission began hosting public meetings to gather comments on its proposed draft in 2011. The process has drawn more than 1,000 public comments. Those comments, along with other observations and suggestions from consultants and the commission’s staff, have guided various revisions of the draft law.
One of the chief concerns of residents has been the proposed creation of a Riverfront Overlay District, with guidance on how riverfront development should happen.
“One of the issues that became very controversial, and is still very controversial, is the idea of doing height bonuses in return for public amenities that a developer would provide,” said Robert Rivers, executive director of the Planning Commission. “The idea of the regulation is to try to leverage height as a way to encourage developers to give the public more access to the riverfront” through walkways, parks, shops and cafes, he said.
That portion of the plan has met with opposition in some historic neighborhoods, where residents say tall buildings would be out of character with the surrounding area.
“We’ve tried to address the issue in a way that is balanced in the CZO,” Rivers said. “So you’re going to see in the Bywater there’s an area where those bonuses will be available. In the Marigny, the opposition was overwhelming, so we’ve kind of pulled back in that area for now.”
Instead, the latest version adds sections of Algiers Point, where residents have said they would like more development, to the proposed overlay district.
A plan for storm water management also is addressed in the latest draft. Instead of the current strategy of collecting storm water and pumping it out of the city, the proposed ordinance calls for developers to demonstrate that a certain percentage of storm water can be retained on their sites or captured in a “natural way” by the soil, Rivers said.
“The idea is if we can require developers to manage storm water on site in a natural way so that it can percolate in the soil, the rate of subsidence would be diminished,” Rivers said. “The impact on roads and all of the infrastructure would be diminished. And we wouldn’t have to spend as much maintaining the infrastructure fighting this uphill battle.”
Two versions of the current draft are available on the city’s website. One is marked up to show the changes made since the last draft; the other is the ordinance as it was submitted to the council. Copies will also be available at New Orleans Public Library locations beginning Monday.
The version accepted by the City Council is the final draft from Planning Commission’s staff. But it is not likely to be the final version of the ordinance. The commission and the council both can give input and make changes before the measure is adopted.
The commission will hold hearings on the draft at its regularly scheduled meetings on Aug. 29 and Sept. 9. A third meeting may also be scheduled, Rivers said.