City Hall will hold off for a month on charging New Orleans property owners for balconies, galleries, steps and other architectural features that encroach on city sidewalks, administration officials said Friday.
The fight over whether property owners must pay for the "air rights" for portions of their buildings that are above city property began in late 2015, when Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration began aggressively enforcing a policy that had been on the books for decades but largely ignored, especially for features that had been in place for decades.
Property owners who applied for city building permits suddenly found themselves forced to sign agreements that in some cases made them promise to pay thousands of dollars a year to lease the rights to those features, even ones that dated back centuries or predated the city streets themselves.
The issue has been particularly acute in the French Quarter, although properties citywide have been affected and residents from Carrollton and St. Roch spoke against the policy at a City Council committee meeting Friday.
Many property owners noted that the city's strict historic preservation rules — particularly in the French Quarter — mean that even if they wanted to take down balconies or other features so they wouldn't have to pay fees for them, they would not be allowed to do so.
In addition to the leases, residents also raised concerns about waivers the city was making property owners sign promising their insurance would cover any claims for incidents that occurred under their balconies. Many said they had talked to their insurance companies and were told such claims would not be covered.
The members of the Jean Adrien House Condominium Association thought they had a cheap, easy …
At Friday's committee meeting, Landrieu's chief administrative officer, Jeff Hebert, said the city would hold off on imposing new leases for 30 days while city attorneys look into whether there might be some "flexibility" in how the policy is enforced.
“We’re in the process of doing legal review to see if we have any flexibility in the way that state law is written that would let us have flexibility in enforcement,” Hebert said. “Based on that review, we may have flexibility to do something that is better for the citizens of the city.”
The city has argued that the policy is necessary because of a provision in the state constitution that prohibits cities from giving away property.
But critics say the benefits provided by balconies, including shade and protection from rain, mean that property owners are providing a free service to the city.
“The city of New Orleans itself expends public funds for balconies on its own buildings. It expended millions of dollars for awnings for balconies at the international airport,” attorney Tommy Milliner said. “The fact of the matter is, these balconies, the air space over the balconies, provide protection to the public. And if you’ve ever been in the French Quarter during a rainstorm, you see people going from balcony to balcony to get out of the rain.”
The Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates organization said other cities in Louisiana surveyed by the group, including Baton Rouge, Alexandria and Natchitoches, don’t impose similar charges.
“Surely, if this was a state mandate, other places would know about it,” said Jenna Burke, assistant director of the residents group.
Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, who represents the French Quarter and said she had held up approval of 10 air rights leases because the administration would not discuss the matter with her, said she expected that those with pending permits will be allowed to do their work while the city does its review.
Beyond just the financial hit to owners, some have argued the policy would hurt the architecture that brings in tourists and makes the city unique.
Actor and radio personality Harry Shearer, who lives in the French Quarter, said, “If you’re going to tax the architectural history of New Orleans, we’re going to get less of it.”
“We can continue to look like New Orleans, or we can look like Anywhere U.S.A.,” Shearer said.