East Baton Rouge raised its building standards Wednesday, demanding that new developments be more flood-proof and turning up the heat on blighted property.
Builders did get a break elsewhere, though. Now, developers can pay a premium to get their plans reviewed more quickly, removing a bureaucratic hurdle that has long been a source of frustration.
Starting in six months, new developments must be able to store water from a 25-year storm, the type of rain event that has a 4 percent chance of happening each year. Before the Metro Council's vote, East Baton Rouge had required storage for only a 10-year storm. The updated standard is intended to help keep new construction from pushing water onto nearby properties.
Council members Dwight Hudson and Erika Green had proposed an even more ambitious plan. Their ordinance originally called for an extra 10 percent storage capacity for developments in the high-risk floodplain, also known as the special flood hazard area or the A zones.
Developers acquiesced to the 25-year flood standard but bristled at the additional 10 percent requirement.
"We absolutely think the 10 percent issue is not guided by science," said Russell Mosely, president of the Baton Rouge Growth Coalition.
The group called for the issue to be taken up in the parish's storm water master plan study.
Concerns about flooding in Baton Rouge have prompted the city-parish to move forward with cr…
The Metro Council officially signed off on the $530,000 project Wednesday. The mayor-president's administration has said the plan will help them plan how to prioritize drainage projects. In the coming months, the city-parish will apply to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for hazard mitigation funding to increase flood resilience.
Ascension Parish is pursuing a similar project with the same firm, HNTB. Last week, one of the contractors told an engineering forum that he expects to have 60 percent of the total territory ready for planning purposes by the first quarter of 2018.
Assuming the flying lasers stay on schedule, Louisiana should have new flood data by April.
Hudson said the additional 10 percent rule in East Baton Rouge was to provide a "margin of error" cushion. He agreed to remove it from Wednesday's proposal but told his colleagues he plans to bring it back in the future.
Developers cautioned the council that toughening building requirements will increase housing costs, which could price buyers out of new homes. Hudson replied that as a real estate agent, he cares about housing costs but he's also concerned about long-term costs from flood risk.
The 25-year requirement passed unanimously. Council members Buddy Amoroso and Matt Watson praised it as a step in the right direction but said it is only a beginning as the city-parish continues the process of overhauling its floodplain ordinance.
More proposals are expected in the coming months, including additional retention requirements in the special flood hazard area, but Hudson said the 25-year requirement is an obvious improvement that council members, neighborhood groups and developers all stood behind.
Amoroso had called for a moratorium on construction in the floodplain while the floodplain ordinance is researched. The council rejected the proposal. Several members of the public worried that developers may try to rush projects through in the six months before the new standards take effect, but Hudson appeared unconcerned, saying it can take a year to draw up those types of plans.
The Metro Council on Wednesday defeated a proposal to temporarily cease new construction in …
Developers were ecstatic for other Wednesday news, though. Now, permit applicants can pay an additional fee to get their plans reviewed more quickly. Currently, it takes about two weeks for residential plan review, but six to eight weeks to shepherd through commercial plans, Development Director Carey Chauvin said in an interview.
The Metro Council agreed Wednesday to hire the South Central Planning and Development Commission to review plans for builders who are willing to pay a bit more to speed up the process. Developers may pay 15 cents per square foot of commercial property or 10 cents per square foot of residential property to get their plans reviewed more quickly. The South Central commission will earn $100,000 from the city-parish per year and claim the additional fees.
On the other end of the spectrum, houses at the end of their lives were also scrutinized during Wednesday's meeting. A divided council jacked up the maximum fine for blighted property tenfold.
Angered by the blighted and abandoned buildings in their north Baton Rouge neighborhoods, mo…
Previously, offenders were assessed automatic fines of $125, $250 and $500 for first, second and subsequent offenses, respectively. On Wednesday, council empowered blight court judges to levy up to $1,000, $3,000 and $5,000 for those violations.
A majority backed the increased maximum, though several council members and visiting state Rep. C. Denise Marcelle doubted whether it would have an effect since so few fines are collected as is. Assistant parish attorney Maimuna Magee said the city-parish has levied about $119,000 in blight fines so far this year but collected only $12,000 of the amount.
"There is definitely a high percentage of violators who never pay the fine," she said.
Watson, a co-sponsor of the ordinance, showed a photo of a property in his district with a yard full of large appliances, mattresses, furniture and other cast-offs. It took 10 inmates, two deputies, three code enforcement officers and heavy equipment three days to clean it up, and they had to return later for four more days of work. Perhaps higher fines could hold irresponsible property owners' feet to the fire, he said.
Chauna Banks was wary of the proposal's language. She worried that assessing fines "up to" a certain amount could lead to unfair enforcement.
Watson countered that property owners can show up in court and plead their cases. If people are dumping tires on some little old lady's property, the judge may not give her any fine instead of automatically assessing a fine of several hundred dollars.
Marcelle and others called for a deferral to reconsider the language in the ordinance. Donna Collins-Lewis suggested keeping the proposed fines for commercial properties but cutting the proposed fines for residential properties roughly in half.
LaMont Cole, who co-sponsored the ordinance, said he was willing to hash out specifics. He acknowledged that higher fines alone may not even be the answer to the problem. But Cole said his constituents are demanding a fix to these eyesores.
"I do think we have to do something if we're going to address blight," he remarked.
Ultimately Amoroso, Banks, Cole, Barbara Freiberg, Hudson, Chandler Loupe, Watson and Trae Welch voted for the higher maximum fines. Collins-Lewis, Green and Scott Wilson voted against it, and Tara Wicker abstained.