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Aerial of severe flooding in the Central area of East Baton Rouge Parish on Sunday August 14, 2016.

Tension between property rights and flood control has created a fissure in Central, where the city planner has been let go under disputed circumstances and the head of the Planning and Zoning Commission has resigned in frustration.

Paul Burns said he quit his post heading the Planning Commission after the City Council — against the commission's recommendation — voted to relax certain ordinances to allow more people to build homes in flood plains.

Council members contend the changes were minor. They say they are meant to empower property owners to divide small rural plots so they can be left to multiple heirs, such as parents who want to split a 4-acre tract between a daughter's family and a son's.

In Central, rural property below the so-called 100-year floodplain is designated as "conservation land," and Burns estimates that it accounts for about a third of the city. Normally, rural lots must be a minimum of one acre, but conservation lots had to be at least three acres, meaning fewer people could build there.

In November, the City Council voted to change the rule, allowing owners to subdivide properties of less than six acres into multiple one-acre plots. 

The three-acre rule was a "cornerstone" of Central's master plan for development, Burns said.

"I thought it was an extremely wise and prudent thing to do," he added.

Changing the ordinance is "making people more susceptible to flooding," the former planning commission chairman said.

"It was very, very wrong. ... I didn't want to be part of it," he said.

Others have countered his assessment.

"I really don't see it being some crucial impact to the flood plain," City Councilman and professional engineer Jason Ellis said.

"At the end of the day I felt like we returned rights back to property owners ... to turn land over to their kin."

Council members explored whether they could restrict the code so subdivided land could only be transferred to family, but the city's lawyer advised against such a rule, Ellis said.

There are still controls in place though, Ellis and Mayor Jr. Shelton said. Under the existing law, property can only be subdivided once, and plots 6 acres and larger are still required to stick to the 3-acre minimum. Additionally, new houses still have to be built to the base flood elevation.

"This is not a situation where someone's going to grab a bunch of land and build a bunch of subdivisions," Shelton said.

Councilman Wayne Messina sees the issue one of inheritance and property rights, not of flood control.

"Sometimes laws end up hurting honest people," preventing them from dividing up land among their heirs, he said.

Messina said the council's action had nothing to do with conservation space.

"Soothsayers ... are using this thing of 'The sky is falling'" as an excuse to oppose the change, he said.

Burns worries the new change is opening the door to developers and unsafe residential subdivisions.

He noted that this marks the second time Central leaders have pulled back from expert advice.

When the master plan for Central was being drawn up, engineers and planners counseled the government to allow no more than one lot for every twelve acres. The city thought it was too restrictive and settled on 3 acres as a compromise but have now retreated again, Burns said.

He said the community has a responsibility to try to control development in its boundaries and to try to keep catastrophic events like August's flood from happening.

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Instead, Burns said, "Basically this council just threw out all that money (paid to advisers), all that deliberation out the window, and said 'We know better.'"

Council members pointed to other changing flood control measures.

Messina said building standards have increased in the decades he's lived in Central. Building owners now have to construct to the level of flooding the federal government expects has a one percent chance of occurring each year, though the requirement is the minimum required of communities that participate in the national flood insurance program.

Central leaders have also pushed to have less land classified as being at high-risk for flooding, allowing homeowners to forgo flood insurance. Federal authorities approved the new, less restrictive maps, which Ellis said shows the area is less susceptible to floods than had been thought.

"Some of these conservation areas really shouldn't be conservation areas because the flood maps have changed," he said.

Further, plans for new construction still have to go up for review, Ellis added.

Burns sees problems with the rule change at both an individual and community level. Building in a conservation area will expose more people to flood risk, he said, so taxpayers have to help pay to rebuild their houses afterward through measures like FEMA assistance. And by building on formerly undeveloped ground, new structures will displace water during a flood, pushing it onto neighbors.

"It's not in the city's interest; it's not in the individual's interest" to develop conservation land, he said.

Woodrow Muhammad, who served until recently as the city's defacto planning director, said the city must be careful to shepherd through environmentally-sensitive development that properly addresses flood mitigation — a "balancing act."

"I think the master plan took account of that. I think the master plan should be respected," he said.

Muhammad said he recently was informed by his company's human resources staff that his job had been eliminated. Technically, Muhammad worked for the Institute for Building Technology and Safety, the private company under contract with Central to provide city services.

Muhammad said the company told him he was being let go at their client's request, a claim city leaders have denied.

"I was not involved in the firing or restructuring or whatever," Shelton said.

Messina said Muhammad's claim that city officials had something to do with his dismissal was "absolutely false. ... The municipality of Central had nothing to do with that." Ellis added that "we don't make personnel decisions for them."

David Ratcliff, IBTS's program director, said the mayor and council had nothing to do with the decision and that Muhammad was a casualty of restructuring designed to provide better and more efficient service.

Muhammad said he doesn't buy the reorganization claim.

"That was not the case. That is not accurate," Muhammad said.

When asked if the city was pursuing unsafe development, he was diplomatic.

"I think there was a lack of understanding," he said in an initial phone interview before being called away without a chance to elaborate on specifics.

In a follow-up text, he said that if terminating his position was for the good of the city and its flood recovery, he would support it, and that he had been counseled not to comment further.

Editor's note: This story was changed after publication to remove the incorrect information that the Planning Commission's recommendation on building in flood plains was unanimous. 


Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.