Action alert: Public comment on radical New Orleans zoning changes should be extended

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With little fanfare, the New Orleans city planning commission is finishing work on a new comprehensive zoning ordinance. I want to give some kudos to both the commission and their staff for getting this done — it clearly was a major, labor-intensive undertaking. Much of their work is perfectly fine in bringing the city’s zoning ordinance up to date, but there are also some major flaws that could have a negative impact on the Crescent City’s quality of life. But the biggest — and most urgent — flaw is the timing of the comment deadline.

The days right after Thanksgiving may not be an official state holiday in Louisiana, but it certainly has become an unofficial holiday — for good reasons. Many private offices and places of business are closed, as Americans all across the country relax and often travel great distances to spend time with family and other loved ones. It is one of the last days that people want to think about anything to do with politics or government.

That’s why I was shocked and disappointed to learn that planning has set this Saturday — of Thanksgiving weekend — to close off public comment on the ordinance, and has rebuffed requests to extend the deadline. This is despite the fact that the measure would radically change the quality-of-life across New Orleans for decades to come, and there has been little citywide debate; to the extent that activists have studied it so far, it has been to look at their neighborhood impacts, and not the citywide effect. Some of the more controversial changes would make it much easier for restaurants to sell liquor and, in key areas of the city, offer live music. There has been very little in depth reporting by any of the major news organizations about this deadline, or the major generational changes this proposal will have on how land use is regulated in the city.

In a time when City Hall and the hotel industry has already bent over backwards to make drawing loud, out-of-control young tourists the centerpiece of its economic development policy, at the expense of longtime residents, these unheralded zoning changes could be a huge problem. Cutting off public commenting on probably the slowest non-state-holiday of the year is not a good idea.

The timing isn’t the only issue that’s problematic. The  so-called Appendix A of the code overhaul — which you can read here — makes it dramatically easier for establishment to sell booze and offer live entertainment, the two issues that have been the crux of noise and quality-of-life disagreements between the city and residents of neighborhoods such as the French Quarter and Marigny who feel they are under siege.

In particular:

— It proposes that every so-called “standard restaurant” — the type where customers sit down and order off a menu — would now be able to sell alcoholic beverages “as of right.” So if the breakfast joint on your corner decides it wants to start selling booze and stay open late, it will be much easier in New Orleans to do that. As has happened so often in the past, many of these “restaurants” will serve so much alcohol during the late night hours that they will essentially become bars. The ordinance will rob the planning commission and City Council of the power to determine whether such a restaurant enhances a neighborhood.

— It also make it much easier for “standard restaurants” to now offer live entertainment, by again making this an as-of-right permissible use, in key areas of town, including a large swath of the central business district, historic neighborhoods and in and around New Orleans’ treasured parkland. Live entertainment has never been allowed in a standard resturant before.

— Another issue is the measure would allow these restaurants serving alcohol to stay open later in key neighborhoods. Because of the two hour window for closing, all standard restaurants would be able to continue to serve customers until as late as 4 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.

— The ordinance also proposes stripping away some critical powers that were given to the Vieux Carre Commission back in 1951, at the dawn of the historic preservation era, on approving certain changes to the use of architecturally significant structures. This is a very dangerous and in my opinion unconstitutional.

Keith Hardie, a New Orleans attorney and community activist, told me earlier today he’s very concerned about these changes. You can read an analysis that he wrote here. He also said:

“These changes will have a dramatic effect on neighborhood business districts, all of which can now become more like Frenchman Street. The change in the way restaurants serving alcohol are regulated will remove from the City Planning Commission and City Council their ability to make sure that restaurants are good fits for our older neighborhoods, and the city-wide late night closing hours will encourage more restaurants to operate as bars. This one-size-fits-all approach is inappropriate for a City with diverse neighborhoods.”

It is amazing to me that such a radical change in the zoning laws meant to protect our quality of life is in the works — when there is no quality of life enforcement in the city right now.

This is an action alert. We would strongly urge that the planning commission extend the public comment period, and allow more debate on these radical changes. At first blush, some of these measures are ill-advised, and New Orleans needs to have a broad, citywide conversation before any action is taken. I urge all stakeholders and neighborhood groups to review this document closely and with their lawyers if possible.

Read Appendix A of the city of New Orleans’ new comprehensive zoning ordinance: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/http___www.nola_.gov_getattachment_2f6fbb69-a95a-463e-a351-11bddc2e6d88_AppA-ABO-LE_2013_.pdf

Read attorney Keith Hardie’s critique of the new zoning ordinance at: http://www.stuarthsmith.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Changes-to-ABO-regulation-2-RTF-1.docx

Read the entire draft zoning ordinance here: http://www.nola.gov/city-planning/comprehensive-zoning-ordinance/

© Smith Stag, LLC 2013 – All Rights Reserved

2 comments

  • There are many unforeseen and unintended consequences that need to be considered, when revamping our city’s zoning code. For example, current zoning ordinances don’t allow an appropriate mix of commercial and residential uses in some neighborhoods. Under today’s zoning ordinances, the corner stores and small grocery stores many of us remember and grew up with would never be allowed within our neighborhoods. In my former neighborhood, the small grocery store that was open before Hurricane Katrina has never reopened. In some of our most underserved neighborhoods, there are no nearby grocery stores within walking distance of homes. Those residents have fewer options for buying fresh produce for their families. If we are going to take the idea of walkable neighborhoods seriously, with small grocery stores in the mix of building uses, the separate placement of residential and commercial buildings and businesses in different parts of the city must be reconsidered. That level of separation is a suburban mindset, in which residents in a neighborhood must drive a fairly long distance to buy goods somewhere else.

  • Live entertainment is virtually the only use that is prohibited anywhere in the city unless specifically allowed. This should be reversed–live entertainment should be allowed unless specifically prohibited.

    — Arts and Culture overlays should be created to craft the needs of the neighborhood, rather than a using a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

    — While we applaud adding live entertainment as a permitted use in restaurants, the stipulation that they only have a ‘three-piece, unamplified’ band needs to be eliminated in Arts and Culture Overlays, and possibly city-wide.

    — Home businesses need to be added as a permitted use in residential areas.

    — Live performance venues (note that this is different than live performance-conditional use) should not be limited to plays/musicals only.

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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