ACA.cup02.011119

A pedestrian crosses Jefferson Street Thursday, January 10, 2019, in Lafayette, La.

The Downtown Development Authority will become more involved in Lafayette’s process for permitting downtown bars, a process the City-Parish Council adopted a year ago to replace a strict moratorium.

In doing so, the authority is taking steps to allay fears the new conditional-use permitting process is too subjective. Critics are concerned this could result in political favoritism determining who can open a downtown bar, or otherwise allow for laissez-faire commerce.

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The authority on Thursday adopted a “toolkit” for prospective bar owners, providing steps to follow to earn the authority’s recommendation. Nothing obligates owners to seek the authority’s recommendation, but its findings are likely to weigh heavily in Zoning Commission decisions. The City-Parish Council in turn relies on the non-binding Zoning Commission recommendations in making final decisions.

The new guidelines are based on those in other cities, namely Seattle, said Anita Begnaud, the authority’s chief executive. A subcommittee will vote to recommend, conditionally recommend or not to recommend applications based on three criteria: the applicant’s outreach and communication efforts; impacts on surrounding businesses and the social environment; and business planning and research.

The subcommittee will be made up of three authority board members, the authority’s chief executive, two people who are either downtown residents or workers, and one ex-officio member who lives or owns property in the immediate vicinity of the proposed project.

The authority voted to appoint Greg Walls as chairman. The other permanent members, who will serve one-year terms, will be named later. The subcommittee will meet in public, per state open-meeting laws, Begnaud said. 

The need for the new procedures arose in October when the Zoning Commission asked the authority for its opinion on the controversial downtown Sawbriar Brewery proposal. The request was both routine and necessary: The authority is asked to weigh in on all new conditional-use permits for downtown bars, and in this case the commission chairman was frustrated by a lack of structured guidance.

Sawbriar Brewery finds new space, opposition from neighbors and zoning commission

City-parish planning staff make technical recommendations reflecting compliance with local ordinances. The staff’s recommendation to approve the brewery, therefore, did not reflect concerns about the operators’ business plan and fierce opposition from neighboring residents.

“We are going to have these things all over the place,” Zoning Commission Chairman John Guilbeau said before the vote in October. “Where are the controls? Who is doing the reviews of all this? It gives me heartburn.”

The commission voted not to recommend the project, which subsequently flopped.

Begnaud, who had not yet begun her position with the authority at the time, said the authority realized it could have played a useful role with the brewery proposal, but that it was notified of the vote with little time to spare and had no way of making a recommendation.

The aim of the new procedures is to engage business owners well in advance of Zoning Commission hearings, and to provide consistent recommendations, Begnaud said.

“We need to be prepared to tell them what we think in a structured way that is fair to everyone involved,” Begnaud said in an interview. “We don’t want to arbitrarily to provide feedback on companies on a case-by-case basis.”

The three areas of consideration include specific steps for business owners to follow. “Outreach and communication,” for example, designates eight individuals and organizations to meet with. “Impacts on surrounding businesses and social environment” calls for a sound mitigation plan, and the business planning section asks about financing sources and building layouts, among other things.

Ultimately, the subcommittee vote is the discretion of seven individuals, some of whom may find themselves in competition with the applicant if they vote to approve. Begnaud said the authority wrestled with the potential for conflicts of interest, which is why the subcommittee’s vote won’t be subject to full board approval. The authority’s board is composed entirely of property owners, Begnaud noted.

“The committee is, I think, a more well-rounded glimpse of the whole of the makeup of people downtown,” Begnaud said.

Clarification: This article has been updated to show that prospective bar owners can seek the authority's recommendation, not its approval

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Follow Ben Myers on Twitter, @blevimyers.