The New Orleans City Council should either eliminate or substantially revise a section of the proposed new comprehensive zoning ordinance that would allow developers to receive exceptions to many regulations in exchange for providing certain benefits to the city, the Bureau of Governmental Research said in a report issued Monday.
The nonpartisan watchdog group said the “broad scope” of Article 5 has the “potential for undermining the rest of the CZO.” BGR has raised concerns about the provision throughout the lengthy process of drafting and editing the proposed zoning law.
“Article 5 introduces a Trojan horse into the CZO and leaves adjacent property owners at sites across the city vulnerable to the very sort of ‘runaway discretion’ that BGR cited in its call for planning reform a decade ago,” the group said. “It could also result in situations that resemble spot zoning, just under a different name.”
The new CZO, in the works for four years, 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 City Council is expected to vote on it this month.
Article 5 of the document establishes standards and regulations for “planned developments.” It says such developments are intended to encourage the adaptive reuse of existing structures, particularly on larger tracts of land. Planned developments also are intended to encourage “creative and innovative” approaches to land use, with sustainability in mind, the CZO says.
Under the article, the City Council would be able to grant exceptions to the zoning law for such developments if it believes they would provide a “substantial benefit” to the city. The exceptions could include waivers on the rules regarding height, density, parking, signage and other basic zoning regulations.
BGR said that provision gives public officials too much discretion, in part because the list of benefits identified in the zoning ordinance — a wide range of amenities that includes outdoor seating, bike racks, stormwater management systems, senior housing and others — is not specific or exhaustive.
What’s more, decision-makers are not given guidelines for evaluating the merits of proposed amenities so as to determine if they are worthy of approving exceptions, the report said.
“Decision-makers could use any project feature they deem to be a public benefit or an amenity in order to justify zoning exceptions,” the nonprofit said in its report. “This language leaves too much leeway in decision-making.”
The report said Article 5 has some “laudable goals,” including promoting the reuse of larger structures in historic neighborhoods, but that they can be better achieved through other methods.
The nonprofit recommended that the council eliminate Article 5 in its entirety. But if it is retained, BGR said, the council should revise it to include specific guidelines for how and when a project can qualify for an exception to the zoning rules.