With work starting on a master plan for Livingston Parish and races under way for parish president and council, it might be time to speak a forbidden word: Zoning.

Oddly enough, zoning was debated widely during council and parish president races eight years ago, but the issue has been reduced to whispers since then.

Meanwhile growth has mushroomed in Livingston Parish, where it continues even in slow economic times.

Most political figures have avoided the topic because they see it as divisive. Many residents of rural areas staunchly believe they should be allowed to do whatever they wish with their land.

Others, who have invested heavily in their homes or businesses, would like assurances that a waste disposal site, slaughterhouse or smokestack industry won’t move in next door.

People living in the corporate limits of Denham Springs and Walker have both the protections and restrictions of zoning laws, but those living elsewhere in the parish don’t.

A concern involving those areas that don’t have zoning is the impact on economic development. Lack of zoning outside municipalities will hurt those areas in attracting the best growth, said Elizabeth “Boo” Thomas, president of the nonprofit Center for Planning Excellence in Baton Rouge.

Top developers might decide they can’t risk an investment because of what might open next door. Some firms “will leapfrog” over spots where less-desirable businesses already have opened, she said.

Such corporate decisions could mean the loss of multimillion-dollar investments if a parish doesn’t have controls in place, she said.

Randy Rogers, director of the Livingston Economic Development Council, said the parish would be “better served” to have a land-use plan.

The big-box businesses interested in the area “want to be protected,” he said.

He said Livingston Parish could lose prime spots for industrial or retail development if pockets of development don’t blend.

Bill Jobert, head of Southeastern Louisiana University’s Small Business Development Center, says zoning has its pluses and minuses.

It’s easier and faster for people to open a business if no zoning exists, he said.

However, that can create a “tin-shed economy” that can keep large businesses from buying the adjacent land. Chain stores and restaurants usually don’t want to open next to a gravel parking lot, he said.

Jobert said businesses do well when they locate in areas that meet their needs and in clusters that support each other.

Retail businesses need traffic thoroughfares, while the next layer of business can be support and service, which can exist farther from high-traffic areas, he said.

Heavier industry and the businesses that support it are important for jobs and the economy, but can locate even farther away from the high-traffic areas, Jobert said.

Master plans and “land-use planning,” which he described as a softer way of saying zoning, can help put the right clusters together and can help increase land values, he said.

Livingston Parish Council Chairman Randy Rushing has a view that tends to blend with those of other councilmen who represent rural areas of the parish.

Rushing doesn’t back parishwide zoning and says he doesn’t think zoning or lack of it would make a big difference in the parish’s development.

Parish Councilman Marshall Harris, who represents the Denham Springs area, has been a vocal proponent of zoning.

When the council finds itself dithering over a land-use issue, Harris often comments that the issue would be simple to handle if parishwide zoning existed.

Often, his comments are met with silence by the rest of the council.

The period when a parish master plan is being created and parish officials are doing their once-every-four-year dance with voters is hardly a time for silence.

Bob Anderson is bureau chief of the Florida Parishes bureau. Contact him at banderson@theadvocate.com.