An East Baton Rouge metro council member is calling for a six-month moratorium on new construction in high-risk floodplains until the city-parish can tighten its building ordinances.
Contractors and real estate agents reacted with alarm to the proposal, saying they fear it would cost jobs and make the parish less appealing to developers in the long-term.
Councilman Buddy Amoroso has asked the city-parish planning and development offices to review East Baton Rouge's floodplain standards and report back with suggestions to make the community more flood resistant.
In the future, new houses in Baton Rouge may need to be built higher, new neighborhoods coul…
He will now ask the Metro Council to put the brakes on new building projects until those authorities have a chance to complete their work. The council will hold a public meeting and consider the moratorium at its Oct. 11 meeting.
The proposal would be enforced in Baton Rouge and unincorporated parts of the parish on property in the high-risk floodplain. Also known as A-zones and the special flood hazard area, it is the land where federally-backed mortgage lenders require flood insurance.
The moratorium would only apply to projects that haven't already been approved by the Planning Commission and which would have an effect on the storm water system, according to Planning Director Frank Duke. The moratorium wouldn't affect the building of a single house or store, although a new subdivision or shopping center would be subject to it.
Developer Steven Duplechain said he suspects Amoroso introduced the moratorium in response to his proposed 425-home subdivision the Lakes at Jones Creek. Residents in neighboring subdivisions that lie within Amoroso's Metro Council district have vehemently opposed Duplechain's development, concerned that the new construction will put them at greater flood risk.
As developers seek to build new subdivisions across Baton Rouge, residents anxious after las…
Amoroso has denied that his plan is tied to any particular subdivision.
"We had a wake-up call a year ago that there's a new reality. ... I believe that it's reasonable to have a time-out period to make these changes to the Unified Development Code," Amoroso said.
But people who build and sell houses are worried about his plan.
"I think everybody's doing a knee-jerk reaction," said Ken Naquin, CEO of Louisiana Associated General Contractors.
Taking flooding concerns into consideration are all well and good, Naquin said. But he cautioned that new standards could affect construction prices. And if the parish halts all new construction, he said, workers will just leave. Naquin pointed out that there's a big demand for contractors in Texas and Florida after the summer's hurricanes.
"Why would they stay? ... They're going to go where the work is," he said.
Duplechain warned of a ripple effect that could impact other sectors — like banking — if new development halts for half a year. He also wondered if any new rules will place further obligations on parish regulators who, he said, are already working very hard.
Greater Baton Rouge Association of Realtors Executive Director Herb Gomez was also critical.
"It's not a good idea to start imposing moratoriums. It puts some uncertainty into the development process. ... It's not good for the reputation of a town," he said.
Developers won't want to buy land or try to initiate projects if they're afraid the local government will halt their work partway, Gomez said.
"You tell developers they can't develop in East Baton Rouge, they'll go somewhere else. Who does that hurt? The people who want to live in East Baton Rouge Parish," he said.
Baton Rouge already has a reputation — for flooding and being unwilling to change its building standards, Amoroso retorted. That reputation will hurt home prices and opportunities for financing, he added.
Amoroso has worked as a general contractor and held a real estate license since 1970. He said he hopes his friends and colleagues will see that he isn't trying to kill their businesses but rather is trying to act in the public's best interest.
Suggestions for amending the development code have included increasing minimum building elevations and requiring developers to include more green spaces.
Amoroso said subdivisions currently have to prepare enough water retention space to handle a so-called 10-year storm, but he'd like to consider bumping that up to a 25-year minimum, as other localities have done.
The code is "woefully outdated," said M.E. Cormier, president of the Woodland Ridge subdivision and one of the people who have spoken against the new Lakes at Jones Creek development.
She applauded changing the Unified Development Code and Amoroso's proposed moratorium.
"I think it's appropriate and long-overdue," Cormier said. "We want to make sure the entire city of Baton Rouge is protected."
Not all of Amoroso's colleagues on the Metro Council are convinced that a moratorium is a good idea, though.
Dwight Hudson, whose southeastern district flooded last year, favors strengthening the Unified Development Code but said he has reservations about imposing a construction moratorium.
People who rely on the construction industry can't put a moratorium on their mortgage payments, he remarked.
Tara Wicker, whose downtown district largely escaped last year's flood, said that understanding all the infrastructure, maintenance and development issues at play in flooding is important — so important that the city-parish should take the time to do careful study with engineers and other experts.
When a Baton Rouge resident asks the city-parish to clear a ditch, haul debris from a canal …
Until leaders have a better idea which direction they want to head, it's probably too early for a moratorium on construction, she said.
Perhaps a short break would work, Hudson said, but he worried about a six-month work stoppage, especially if the parish can't draft new ordinances in that period of time and has to seek further extensions.
Amoroso and Duke, the planning director, said they believed six months would be sufficient time.
Duke said the parish can probably look to best practices across the country and make some recommendations, but noted that Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome has hired contractors to create a storm water master plan for East Baton Rouge. Once their findings come in, he said, the parish likely will need to come back with a second round of more specific amendments.
The mayor-president's office, which oversees the Development Office, was unable to answer basic questions about the proposed moratorium on Thursday, including whether six months was a reasonable timeline.
Interim Chief Administrative Officer Jim Llorens said the administration has not yet decided whether it would support Amoroso's proposal.
In the wake of last year's storm, the Metro Council weakened its floodplain rules to try to get flooded families back into their houses, especially in low-risk zones. Engineers were critical of loosening the standards. However, raising the elevation for new buildings to two or three feet above the base flood elevation would bring it higher than it had previously been.
A few weeks after the August flood, a Federal Emergency Management Agency engineer appeared …
It is possible that implementing more stringent standards could get East Baton Rouge residents an extra five percent discount on their flood insurance. However, changes would have to be substantial enough to lift the parish into a higher echelon of the federal Community Rating System, which measures localities' flood mitigation programs.
One scrapped parish rule Amoroso said he doesn't want to bring back deals with substantial damage. A home that doesn't meet elevation requirements must be jacked up or torn down if it's in a high-risk area and substantially damaged in a flood. East Baton Rouge used to define substantial damage as 40 percent, but it's back down to the federal minimum of 50 percent.
As the National Flood Insurance Program heads toward insolvency, Congress must weigh whether…