REALTORS® Forge Groundbreaking Relationship with Planning Group

Norman Morris is unaware of another bond like the one his organization, Louisiana REALTORS®, has built with the Center for Planning Excellence (CPEX). “It’s been a wonderful relationship, but I’m not sure if any other state REALTOR® associations have partnered with similar groups,” reports the Baton Rouge-based organization’s CEO.

Louisiana REALTORS® have a wonderful relationship with the Center for Planning Excellence.

REALTOR® groups like the one Morris heads — as you likely already know — focus on protecting property rights for owners nationwide, fostering smart growth, and supporting the professionals in the industry working toward those and other important goals. The Center for Planning Excellence is a Louisiana planning nonprofit that coordinates urban, rural, and regional planning efforts in the state, according to Camille Manning-Broome, its president and CEO.

“Since 2006, we’ve had a very large focus on climate change adaptation,” she says. “In Louisiana, we’re on the front lines of dealing with the impacts related to not only sea-level rise and intensified hurricanes, but also issues around drought coupled with very large rain events. In 2016, 57 of 64 parishes in the state were declared national disasters due to some weather-related event — even our northernmost parishes that had never seen tornadoes and flooding before.”

Planners and developers partner on numerous smart growth initiatives in the state.

It’s no secret that planners and developers can disagree on the best ways to build strong communities. But these two groups have frequently found agreement on growth issues. Over the past 10 years, they’ve partnered on numerous smart growth initiatives in the state.

“A nonprofit planning organization and the REALTORS® may seem to be unlikely partners because our lines of work are very different, but we actually are very closely aligned in our interests and long-term goals,” notes Manning-Broome. “Both of our organizations want to create lasting value in communities by helping them become quality places to live, work and play.”

Manning-Broome considers the affiliation a success. “Our partnership has been both unique and highly productive,” she says. “Bringing together our different skill sets and perspectives has resulted in projects and initiatives that have transformed neighborhoods and communities for the better in very tangible ways.”

Collaborating From the Ground Up

As best they can remember, Morris and Manning-Broome say it was in about 2008 when the groups began investigating whether they could join forces to bring smart development to the state. “We had seen some of the things CPEX was working on and heard of its efforts by talking with local elected officials,” recalls Morris. “We also saw that they were bringing in experts from around the country to talk about growth issues and best practices. So we reached out.

“We believe that if we can partner with other organizations, we can bring new trends to not only help our members represent their clients and customers, but also to build better cities and communities and to make our state better.”

Their inaugural effort was an educational drive on best practices for land-use management. In 2005, reports Manning-Broome, only 15 of 64 parishes — what many other states call counties — had a master plan. It was that year that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit within a month of each other and devastated many Louisiana communities.

The Louisiana REALTORS® supported legislative efforts to institute building codes.

As rebuilding efforts began, many leaders realized Louisiana needed better and smarter planning. The Louisiana REALTORS® supported legislative efforts to institute building codes, reports Morris. “We didn’t have a statewide building code at the time,” he says. “It was something we worked on with a large coalition including the insurance industry and others. That was a totally dynamic culture change. We also worked to lay the groundwork with legislative changes that would keep the property and casualty insurance market viable in Louisiana, to make sure insurance was available and affordable.

“The building codes enacted were stronger and more stringent the closer you got to the coast,” recalls Morris. “We knew there was more cost involved in construction, but we also knew it would protect individuals’ investments. That effort allowed us to bring in, through CPEX, such stakeholders as elected officials and planners to collaborate with our REALTOR® members so when decisions were being made, REALTORS® would be a part of them.”

No Longer Neighborly

Manning-Broome agrees it was the massive rebuilding efforts that helped draw CPEX and REALTORS® together. “In Louisiana, we don’t have an office of state planning, and culturally there hasn’t been a lot of planning and regulating of the land through zoning,” she says. “We’ve been a very strong private-property-rights state, and people were just good neighbors. But for the most part, the state wasn’t growing. After Hurricane Katrina, populations shifted dramatically. There was also a realization that developers were coming in and not being good neighbors.”

Manning-Broome still remembers getting a call from a concerned citizen wanting to know if CPEX could help in a situation in which a developer was building a subdivision next to a dairy farm. There was no infrastructure in the area — the roads were all gravel, and there were no connections to water or sewage systems.

“If there was a fire in any of those homes, there weren’t even water pipes for fire trucks to use to put the flames out,” she states. “People contacted us as the only nonprofit planning organization in the state.”

CPEX created a program, called Louisiana Speaks, that allowed residents to redesign the state’s building, neighborhood, parish, and regional planning. Through the program, CPEX and the Louisiana REALTORS® teamed up to create the Louisiana Land Use Toolkit, intended to give residents the tools necessary to create laws and develop plans that fostered smart growth.

“Our first collaboration began around us creating the toolkit,” notes Manning-Broome. “With the support of the REALTORS®, we conducted massive educational workshops across the state to not only educate the public and leaders on best practices on land-use management tools, but also to build a stronger relationship with the REALTOR® community.

“NAR has a very strong smart-growth platform,” adds Manning-Broome. “We had transparent conversations and robust discussions about the communities of the future, and having that relationship with REALTORS® is critical. You want everybody in the tent to be part of establishing a plan and executing it.”

That “roadshow,” as Manning-Broome dubbed the effort, drew more than 2,500 people to workshops on land use and ordinances in areas covered by local REALTOR® boards. Participants were mostly REALTORS®, she says, joined by key local stakeholders.

Download the CPEX Best Practices Manual for Development

Download (PDF: 17.5 MB)

“We’re dealing with best practices in the new age of building,” explains Morris. “CPEX brought in national experts who had done specific plans to discuss new ways to build out. For the first time, we were able to really see the big picture based on what was being done in other areas and best practices. The idea was to discuss where we thought our communities could be 10 to 15 years down the road. It was a great education process for our members, and it strengthened relationships between REALTORS® and local officials.”

To facilitate that massive roadshow, the Louisiana REALTORS® and local REALTOR® organizations in the state applied for, and were awarded, NAR smart growth grants. “That first grant was $50,000 because we were able to have every executive director of the state’s REALTOR® associations combine their grant requests to reach that amount,” says Manning-Broome.

Later, the groups used another NAR smart growth grant to conduct a day-long workshop in Houma, La., that focused on weathering the effects of increasing storms. “We brought in experts on how to mitigate the effects, how to build stronger and better, where to build to protect communities, best practices on building elevation, and other topics,” says Morris. “It was a packed room. The money NAR brought to the table allowed experts, who’d seen other types of storms, to come in and offer their best advice. It was invaluable for the local people to learn more about how to protect their community.”

The organizations also educated stakeholders through the Coastal Toolkit and Best Practices Workshops. “We conducted workshops in our most high-risk coastal communities on how to make land-use decisions with critical environmental constraints,” says Manning-Broome.

“Our REALTOR® members have also been working on advocating for better technology for mapping flood zones and better mitigation efforts,” notes Morris. “A lot has been done by local people on flood control. Many have done a tremendous job of building better flood walls and pumping stations on their own. The other side of the coin is whether individuals can raise their homes, with some doing it voluntarily, and with some being mandated to do that.

“We typically don’t get involved in the science of these issues — that’s not our expertise — and we work to ensure the protection of property rights,” says Morris. “But we can share information with our clients on best practices. Our members can tell their clients things like, ‘You might want to get a flood elevation certificate; it’ll show where your property is and if you need to move your home to get better insurance rates.’”

Download the CPEX Advancing Community Adaptation resource paper

Download (PDF: 18.7 MB)

The bonds grow stronger

In addition to weather-mitigation efforts, the Louisiana REALTORS® and CPEX have joined forces many more times, and in nearly every instance supported by NAR smart growth grants.

“Every November, CPEX does a three-day smart growth conference, and it brings in experts from all over the country,” notes Morris. “We’re always a part of that, and we encourage our members to be a part of it, also. For the last several years, we’ve gotten a stipend from NAR’s smart-growth group to sponsor the conference.”

They also teamed up to present a demonstration of bike and pedestrian improvements on the Perkins Road Overpass in Baton Rouge, an area currently dangerous for pedestrians and bicyclists. The demonstration has convinced city leaders to move forward to implement much of the demonstrated improvements, reports Manning-Broome.

CPEX flood proofing chart

Courtesy of CPEX

The Better Block Demonstration Projects were also funded by NAR smart growth grants. Through the project, 11 improvements were highlighted to show how community design could enhance livability. The Louisiana REALTORS® and CPEX conducted three Better Block demonstrations to temporarily build out improvements that would enhance a specific area. The Greater Baton Rouge Association of REALTORS® has also worked with CPEX, using several NAR smart growth grants over the years to sponsor Better Block and Smart Street events which have been significant economic drivers.

The Government Street Better Block demonstration in Baton Rouge has been a huge economic driver. The street was reimagined to include shaded sidewalks, bike lanes, improved retail, and increased safety for those navigating it. According to CPEX data, 48 new businesses and two new mixed-use developments have emerged as a result. Property values have almost doubled, reports CPEX, and the rapid economic growth has moved beyond Government Street, creating a ripple effect throughout the broader neighborhood.

The project the two groups are currently focused on targets blighted property. “At our local REALTOR® associations, you see it all the time — people asking how they can deal with blight,” Morris explains. “I’m excited about pulling our local leaders together with the local partners to see if there’s a better way to approach blight. We want to help bring properties back into commerce while balancing the private-property rights.

“CPEX has been a great partner to work with,” states Morris. “If we can partner with like-minded groups, or those we can learn from, we’re big believers in doing that.”

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A free, semi-annual magazine published by NAR, On Common Ground presents a wide range of views on smart growth issues, with the goal of encouraging dialog among REALTORS®, elected officials, and other interested citizens.

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