New Orleans needs to hit the brakes on proposed zoning amendments


New Orleans has been through a lot of political and physical upheaval since 2005 and the days after Hurricane Katrina.

But there is much that hasn’t changed at all.

Because so much of our city—nearly 80 percent—was harmed by the levee breaks following Katrina, it made sense to give the updating of the City Zoning Ordinance and the attendant Master Plan a lot of attention since the storm.

And to some extent, that happened. The City of New Orleans held many months-worth of town hall meetings on the proposed changes to how we develop and conduct business within the Parish of Orleans, and the written law itself — the CZO — has been debated for more than a year.

That’s why it is disappointing to so many who were involved in this process from day one to see the City Council accept last minute amendments to the CZO that tilt towards the interests of developers, hard-partying tourists, and influence-peddlers of one order or another, and disadvantage the needs of long-time taxpayers and residents who live and work here, day in and day out.

This is especially true as it concerns an issue I have worked on for years, i.e. the noise and rowdyism in the French Quarter and other key neighborhoods which is not cultural — but just plain destructive.

Tomorrow, City Council is slated to take up and finally vote on the CZO. They would have done it last month, but again…special interests demanded last-minutes revisions which no one had studied and yet the Council accepted! These last minute, unvetted amendments — some of which will be introduced for the first time tomorrow — are against the city charter itself!

A Master Plan and CZO in many ways should be a living document, with room for improvements and modern ways of doing things. But some indigenous things should be beyond reproach unless there has been citizen input and approval — such as height limits in historic neighborhoods, or rules which govern the designation of nightclubs in neighborhoods versus restaurants.

As an attorney who has studied such issues for a long time, I recently sent a short white paper that looks in depth at some of the problems with the proposed zoning ordinance and its recent amendments. These findings were delivered to all Council members, with a special delivery to my Councilperson Nadine Ramsey.

My point was that many of the last minute amendments, which the Mayor and Councilmember Ramsey drafted, would disrupt “the quaint and distinctive character of the Vieux Carre” and other historic areas. Here’s a summary of three key points from the white paper:

1. Changing the definition of a “restaurant” and thus the restrictions on live music that can be performed. I note that the existing ordinance “defines standard restaurants as not including ‘live entertainment’. This is to prevent the proliferation of ‘nightclubs’ which are by definition, establishments that expressly permit live entertainment – with or without the service of food. Often as we have seen throughout the City, land use intensifies clandestinely by beginning as one use (such as a restaurant), and then gradually morphing into another (by providing intermittent live entertainment, the establishment morphs into a nightclub).” It is imperative that this definition not be changed.

2. Permitting live entertainment in restaurant courtyards. I note: “In conjunction with the attempt to change the definition of ‘restaurant’ permitting live entertainment in courtyards will allow ‘live entertainment’ venues to crop up in nearly every zoning district in the French Quarter. No study has been done on the impact of allowing such a proliferation of live entertainment venues and the potential detriment to landowners – commercial and residential alike – who must often share multiple common walls.”

3. Allowing “non-conforming uses” to continue to operate in the French Quarter. The amendment lowers the bar, from owners needing to show a “clear and compelling” reason to operate outside the zoning code, to a more lax standard called “reasonableness.” Given the ongoing noise and related issues in tourist-friendly section of New Orleans, this is not the right moment to lower the bar.

To be clear, these changes are just the latest in a series of moves in which the city government has been favoring developers over residents. These include the plan for a boisterous restaurant and bar called Habana Outpost at the edge of the French Quarter, a case of a re-developer installing an elevator in an historic building without permission, other lax enforcement of key laws and codes, unlawful truck traffic in the French Quarter, and even a plan to revisit the noise ordinance issue that would make bars and nightclubs in the historic district louder than ever. The Mayor has even introduced an amendment to turn the French Market into a new “Bourbon Street”.

To be clear, the problem here is not too much change. It’s too much bad change. The people of New Orleans, and especially the French Quarter, need to speak up and let City Council know that these are not the kinds of policies that voters support. Delaying these ill-considered amendments is the right place to start.

Pass the CZO, but don’t include these last-minute bad ideas.

Read more about the proposed zoning ordinance on

Check out the recent “white paper” prepared and sent to Councilwoman Ramsey’s office:

Read my letter to Councilwoman Ramsey:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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

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