Today, I was reading an article in The Advocate on the Louisiana Landmarks Society placing the New Orleans Master Plan on its 2014 New Orleans’ Nine Most Endangered list. It was not supposed to be the case that the Master Plan would be such a weak document. In 2008, New Orleans voters approved a City Charter Change that would require the City to adopt a Master Plan with the “force of law.” When City Council adopted the Master Plan in 2010, everyone hailed it as a great accomplish that will end planning by surprise in New Orleans. So, has this happened? Is the Master Plan in danger or endangering historic properties? What does it mean that the Master Plan has the force of law, has it done anything to end planning by surprise?
The Force of Law is portion of the Charter Change that is supposed to give the Master Plan some weight. Many plans sit on the shelf collecting dust because they do not have funds to implement them and they have no legal authority. The Force of Law gives the Master Plan the legal authority that it needs and decisions around zoning changes are supposed to be consistent with the Master Plan. But is this really happening?
Yes and No. City Council makes the final decision when it comes to zoning changes. Are their decisions are not always consistent with the Master Plan. City Council members often make decisions for political reasons without much regard for what the Master Plan says. City Council members will certainly cite the Master Plan when it supports their decision, but they have ignored the Master Plan when it is not consistent with what they want to do.
Here is one example of City Council ignoring the Master Plan. On October 4, 2012, City Council voted to change the zoning of a property at 4321 Paris Avenue for Neighborhood Business (B-1) to Single-Family Residential (RS-2). Councilmember Hedge-Morrell, responding to constituent concerns that a problem corner store may reopen, sought to rezone this property from business to single-family resident. The problem was that the Master Plan designated this area for neighborhood commercial, so rezoning the violated (or at least was inconsistent with) the Master Plan.
If the Master Plan has the force of law, then how could this happen? It is because so far there has not been anyone to hold City Council accountable for their votes. Given the doctrine of balance of power and divided branches of government, it is up to the judicial branch to hold the legislative branch accountable. This has not happened yet, because no one has brought a case to the courts to challenge a City Council decision based on the Master Plan. If the property owner of 4321 Paris Avenue sued the City for the loss in land value due to rezoning his property from commercial to residential that was inconsistent with the Master Plan, I would think that he would have an open and shut case against the City.
I am not encouraging people to sue the City, because ultimately it would cost all of us New Orleans tax payers. Something needs to be done to hold the City Council accountable for its decisions that violate the Master Plan, or City Council will continue to disregard the Master Plan’s force of law. So a lawsuit against the City might be the only option. The Louisiana Landmarks Society’s call that the Master Plan is endangering history properties and neighborhoods, seems like a sound argument to me. As long as City Council sees the Master Plan as a recommendation and not a legal requirement, we will never end planning by surprise and have the protection we need for our historic neighborhoods in New Orleans.