In an attempt to stave off legal challenges to decisions made by the Neighborhood Conservation District Committee, the City Council voted Thursday to strip the body of its ability to authorize or prohibit demolitions in many old neighborhoods of New Orleans.
The new rules and procedures for the 6-year-old committee will allow it only to make recommendations to the council, which will decide each property’s fate.
The move essentially shifts the committee, to be renamed the Neighborhood Conservation District Advisory Committee, to the legislative side of government. Property owners who had turned to the courts to appeal the body’s decisions recently argued that it was improperly housed in the executive branch and its decisions therefore were not legally binding, council President Stacy Head said.
“While I don’t know if they would have won, it was a big enough concern that we decided to clear it up,” said Head, who introduced the ordinance.
The addition of the word “advisory” in the committee’s name speaks to the major change in the body’s function.
Going forward, the panel will be limited to providing “counsel and advice” to the City Council, which will decide on demolition requests in old neighborhoods not included in the city’s numerous officially designated historic districts. At present, the council hears such matters only if they are brought to it on appeal.
Head’s original ordinance also called for eliminating six members from the committee — one appointed by the mayor and one representative each from the Historic District Landmarks Commission and the departments of Safety and Permits, Code Enforcement, Health and City Planning. But those members were added back Thursday in an amendment backed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration that Head said is intended to ensure that the committee contains some experts.
The other seven committee members are appointed by the seven council members.
From now on, all members will serve one-year terms that can be renewed by the council. Terms currently last for four years.
The new rules come on the heels of the council’s controversial decision to allow demolition of a house at 820 Gen. Pershing St.
The committee voted to deny the building’s demolition. Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, whose district includes the property, initially came out against the demolition but then reversed course at a council meeting two weeks ago.
Residents who met with Cantrell said she changed her position because of concerns about the validity of the NCDC process and the city’s ability to defend it in court.
At Thursday’s meeting, Cantrell said only that she’d “had issues” with the NCDC process in the past, “but I do believe this is putting us on the right track.”
Head said the change will “improve our confidence in the enforceability” of the committee’s recommendations.
The NCDC was created in 2008 to try to preserve buildings of historical or architectural value within a large area of the city designated as the Neighborhood Conservation District, as well as structures in the same area identified by the Historic District Landmarks Commission as contributing to the “overall character of the neighborhood.”
Property owners seeking to demolish such structures have needed to receive the committee’s approval or else get the council to reverse a committee decision.