After years of discussion, debate and argument, the New Orleans City Council rushed through the city's new Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance (CZO) at its regular meeting May 14. It received unanimous approval late in the evening.
The CZO is a document specifying land use regulations throughout the city, including height limits, setbacks and other matters that often put developers and neighborhood associations at odds. The city charter requires a CZO and stipulates it must be in accord with the city's "Plan for the 21st Century" (aka the Master Plan), which was adopted in 2010, almost exactly five years after Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods.
Neighborhood meetings on the proposed CZO were conducted in 2011, and thousands of suggestions from those meetings were incorporated into another draft, which was discussed in meetings in 2013. Last year, District B City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell also convened a meeting at City Hall to discuss the "final" version. Nevertheless, many amendments were introduced at the last minute — some on the day of the vote.
The final CZO discussion began two hours later than announced, leaving some citizens who wanted to speak frustrated. Many left. Others were angry about last-minute amendments, saying they hadn't had a chance for proper review.
"Much of what happened ... was disgraceful," said Meg Lousteau, executive director of Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates (VCPORA), adding she thought the council meeting "should shock and disgust every citizen of New Orleans. People spent years going to meeting after meeting after meeting, all because they were told their voices mattered. Yesterday made a mockery of that."
About one hour of the nearly eight-hour council meeting was spent on one issue: an amendment that redefined cigar bars and would allow new ones to open in the Upper Quarter. The law, which would directly benefit a single existing bar, La Habana Hemingway, came one month after the council's ban on all smoking in bars and casinos went into place. District A Councilwoman Susan Guidry was the only vote against the new exception. The council, however, killed a proposed amendment that would have allowed French Quarter restaurants to have live music and another that would have allowed package liquor sales at bars.
The controversial "Riverfront Design Overlay District," which increases height limits for some parcels along the Mississippi River, also was approved.
In a statement after the vote, City Council Vice President Stacy Head noted, “As with all city ordinances, future amendments, as long as they are consistent with the Master Plan, are possible.” — KEVIN ALLMAN