William Borah Credit: W.E. Borah

A few weeks ago, after months of hearings and debate, the City Council adopted a revision of the City’s Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance (CZO). To say that the ordinance was met with skepticism by members of the community is an understatement.

Deep and lingering public concerns range from the role of the Vieux Carré Commission in land use decisions, to the deliverance of “height bonuses” for developers of riverfront property, to the manner in which last-minute changes were made to the ordinance without significant citizen input.

As an expression of this citizen disenchantment, on May 28 the Faubourg Marigny Improvement Association, a nonprofit community group, filed suit in Civil District Court against the City of New Orleans, the City Council, and the City Planning Commission, challenging the legality of much of the ordinance and the manner in which it was adopted.

The contested adoption of the new zoning ordinance should not prevent the City Planning Commission from undertaking a critically important measure of another kind: a comprehensive revision of the city’s Master Plan.

Such a revision is authorized by the Home Rule Charter. By law, the CZO must be consistent with the Master Plan. A revised zoning ordinance cannot responsibly direct future growth — no matter how competently the ordinance is drawn, or how well intentioned the effort may be — if the Master Plan upon which it is based does not provide an effective guide for the future development of the city. And as we have learned since its adoption in 2010, the “Plan for the 21st Century,” to give the Master Plan its full title, fails miserably when it comes to directing the growth of the city for the next 20 years.

Fortunately there is a document that outlines the defects of the current Master Plan and proposes a strategy for remedying its deficiencies.

It sets unrealistic goals, does not establish priorities, is often confusing and inconsistent, and has an overabundance of background information. It fails to limit the plan to guiding the physical growth of the city, and it gives every indication of being prepared by a firm that had little or no experience in drafting master plans for a jurisdiction where plans had to be followed – in other words, a jurisdiction where the comprehensive plan to direct the future growth of the city has the force of law.

New Orleans is such a jurisdiction.

Voters in 2008 approved a revision to the City Charter that said the Master Plan, once completed, would have the force of law. This means that in the future all land use regulations, including the zoning ordinance, and all capital expenditures, including the capital budget, have to be consistent with the Master Plan. (Full disclosure: On behalf of the nonprofit Smart Growth for Louisiana, I drafted the Charter amendments that were subsequently approved by a majority of the voters.)

In supporting the Charter amendment, voters were expressing their disenchantment with the ad hoc, special interest-driven planning process that the city experienced prior to Katrina. At that time the city had no plan to direct its future development, much less a plan based on the involvement of citizens in the planning process.

Increasingly land use decisions were made due to political influence rather than what was in the best interest of the community. Zoning ordinances were amended and zoning variances granted — too often for the benefit of a particular interest group rather than what was in the best interest of a neighborhood.

Fortunately for New Orleans and the City Planning Commission there is a document that outlines the defects of the current Master Plan and proposes a strategy for remedying its deficiencies. The 2009 Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR) report, “In Search of the Master Plan,” is that document, and it as valid today as the day it was written.

I recommend that the staff and the members of the City Planning Commission read or reread the report and contact the BGR, its consultants Sedway Consulting/Barry Miller Consulting, and follow the recommendations outlined in the report. Specifically, the Planning Commission should give serious thought to retaining the services of Paul Sedway and Barry Miller to initiate a comprehensive revision of the Master Plan in collaboration with Planning Commission staff.

Without such a revision, no matter how well-crafted the new zoning ordinance may be — and there is serious doubt in this community about the CZO, as approved — New Orleans will have, and continue to have, a defective land use planning process.

New Orleans attorney William E. Borah led the fight against plans to run an elevated expressway along the French Quarter riverfront and has been a key figure in land use and historic preservation battles for more than a half-century.