Many people outside the state forget that in 2005 Louisiana was ravaged by not one, but two hurricanes: First Katrina lashed the eastern portion, and then, less than a month later, Rita wreaked havoc in the west. The storms were devastating to the coastal communities that were hit, and they created another kind of chaos in adjoining areas, as people migrated inland to previously rural areas.
As coastal areas struggled to redevelop, and inland communities were forced to grapple with unexpected— and often, unwanted — development, most were flying blind without a plan and lacking the zoning tools to shape development, says Camille Manning-Broome, director of planning for the Center for Planning Excellence (CPEX) in Baton Rouge. Only 21 of the state’s 64 parishes (or counties) had zoning ordinances of any kind on the books, and many local communities were traditionally suspicious, if not hostile to the very idea of planning and zoning.
In the aftermath of the storms, the Center for Planning Excellence — a nonprofit that works to help communities plan for sustainable growth and development— worked with the state of Louisiana to commission an unprecedented regional plan for coastal Louisiana. Dubbed Louisiana Speaks, it covered 35 parishes and 25,000 square miles, and involved 27,000 residents in workshops, surveys and other activities. The final report offered one of the most ambitious plans in the country, but the authors warned that little progress would be made unless local governments developed “a unified vision for economic development, effective planning and effective implementation of plans.” Particularly, at long last, they had to embrace “land use planning.”
“The hurricanes changed everything,” says Manning-Broome. Communities that had previously recoiled at planning and zoning began to clamor for some way to keep the popup subdivisions from encroaching on productive agricultural areas, or for traditional coastal towns from redeveloping as Anywhere, USA. Although many now had the will to take on growth and development planning and zoning, few had the wallet to pay for it.
“We came up with the idea to develop a land use toolkit that could be adapted in whole, or in part, by any community, that we would provide for free,” Manning-Broome recalls. But who would fund such an effort? “When we started thinking about funding for help for communities, we heard that the Louisiana Economic Development Department had done a survey and found that one of the largest impediments to recruiting industry was the lack of planning and consistent regulatory processes.”
Sure enough, the department was ready and willing to put up funds to allow CPEX to hire a firm that would create what would come to be called the Louisiana Land Use Toolkit. The economic development department’s participation was a major breakthrough, says Hugh Morris, with the National Association of REALTORS® smart growth program. “What is unique about this is that the economic development folks understand that if a community wants economic development, it needs to plan,” Morris says. “If a community doesn’t have land use rules, people won’t want to invest in that community.”
To prepare the model code CPEX hired Code Studio out of Austin, Texas, in 2008. Lee Einsweiler, a principal of the firm, went to work researching the existing state of affairs and the historic contexts that make Louisiana communities unique. “In our early stage of reconnaissance, we found there were very few places that even had zoning, and fewer with good zoning. Other traditions had much greater influence,” he says. For example, many areas had been — and still were being — shaped by an archaic French system of landownership based on “arpents,” wedges of property fanning out from a river that often meandered this way and that. “Those arpents have been subdivided many times, and people have come to think that they should be able to build what they like on them.” Elsewhere, people were accustomed to building “fish camps that don’t mesh with standard subdivisions,” says Einsweiler.
Code Studio set about identifying the neighborhoods and districts that people in a given part of the state considered to be successful in their design, and created codes that would help communities recreate such places. To do so, the toolkit invites communities to label each given area according to its “context” — is it rural, urban, a village, a quiet residential neighborhood or a central business district? Then it identifies the dimensions and character of the streets — number of lanes; curb or no curb; sidewalks, and if so, how wide; etc. — and the building types and placement that go with that context. The resulting toolkit melds conventional zoning and form-based codes based on the urban-to-rural transect that new urbanists have begun to popularize. “The beauty is that it is optional, and it is quite flexible in its ability to handle multiple kinds of locations,” says Einsweiler.
Ultimately, says Manning-Broome, the toolkit had to be easy and affordable to administer and consist of clear, concise guidelines that could be represented in graphic form, rather than as pages and pages of legalistic terminology. Once CPEX was satisfied the toolkit had hit the mark, the next step was to get it in front of local communities and stir interest in it. CPEX found a receptive ally in a number of local REALTOR® associations. In 2008, eight of the state’s 13 associations applied to the National Association of REALTORS® for smart growth implementation grants that would allow them to host a “road show” and workshop for the toolkit, says Morris, who received the applications at his Washington, D.C. office.
“We decided that with that level of interest we would pull those out of the normal grant cycle and make a special grant for the toolkit road show,” Morris says. Those funds made it possible to hold workshops in 10 communities across Louisiana in April and May, 2009.The workshop included not just a presentation on the toolkit, but also a discussion of local planning and development issues, and a hands-on mapping session in which participants worked together to place chips representing buildings, to visualize the kind of places they wanted to create.
The interest and attendance — by local officials, REALTORS®, business owners and ordinary residents— surpassed expectations nearly every place the roadshow went. Many participants responded to an appeal to chambers of commerce and community leaders from Stephen Moret, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Economic Development. Moret wrote: “In an effort to make Louisiana communities as competitive as possible, we encourage every municipality to create a plan for future growth allowing for new development while preserving the community’s unique history and character.”
“We had good involvement everywhere we went,” recalls Einsweiler. “We presented in everything from a horse barn in one place to a new federal government building in Lafayette. We began by thinking this was for the smallest places, but it turns out this can be helpful to all kinds of places. We’ve talked to people in Alexandria, in areas around New Orleans. Monroe, in the northeast Louisiana, a place you might expect little interest, actually drew the biggest crowd.”
“It was really magnificent,” says Manning-Broome. “You had people in the development community, the regulatory community, real estate, planners, economic developers, local officials all together in a room where they worked together to ‘create’ their community. All the communities were incredibly different, but the takeaway was that all could be created with our toolkit.”
In 2006, REALTOR® and NAR Director Sandra Guidroz moved to Alexandria in central Louisiana from Houma. “I moved north to get away from the hurricanes. I figured this was as far north as I could go without becoming a Yankee.” She found that Alexandria and the very rural area around it had little familiarity with the planning, development and redevelopment issues that she had known in Houma. The toolkit Road Show event in Alexandria was a big hit, she said.
“I thought it was fantastic. It drew from a lot of small communities within a 50 to 60 mile radius of Alexandria. They loved it because they had never gotten anything like that before.
“They got into [the mapping game] like playing Monopoly, moving hotels around. Where you got to lay your community out and say here’s where the subdivision should go, where the big lots and small lots go. We each put our different hats on — REALTORS®, local officials and what have you — and we had some contentious issues, but it was good for us all to work through them together. I hope they do it again.”
Meanwhile, Code Studio continues to work to refine the toolkit, with a new version that was due out at the end of 2009. CPEX has continued to raise money to try to help communities implement planning and development codes. They are working directly with Tangipahoa Parish, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, that was shocked by the wave of development it saw following the hurricanes, to create a plan and implement land use codes based on the toolkit.
In some cases, the arrival of the road show provided a catalyst for local efforts that had been simmering, says Mary Jane Bauer, CEO of the REALTOR ®Association of Acadiana in Lafayette, the heart of Cajun country. “One of the best things that came about for our area was that we had had a comprehensive master plan developed by a large group of citizens that had sat on the shelf for years,” Bauer says. After the road show revived interest in the idea of planning, local officials in September 2009 finally approved funding to hire a consultant to create an official plan and begin to implement it.
“This is so important to me as a citizen, but also as a REALTOR ®,” adds Bauer. “REALTORS® would benefit in lots of ways by being more involved in planning their communities and in the quality of life and transportation issues. If it’s a place where people want to live and work the REALTORS® will be even more successful.”
Find the Louisiana Land Use Toolkit and associated materials online at: http://www.landusetoolkit.com/
Watch a YouTube video about the toolkit here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tm0OHX1N9PQ