Developing in a Baton Rouge floodplain could get tougher

More stringent requirements for Baton Rouge developers looking to build in a floodplain could become a reality if a proposed study of such development rules moves forward.

A proposal to study chapter 15 of the Unified Development Code is expected to be formally introduced by Metro Councilman Buddy Amoroso this week, and Planning Director Frank Duke says the idea has sparked a good deal of interest from council members. It’s the latest move by a city and parish still grappling with fallout from Louisiana Flood of 2016, and warnings by experts that local government’s planning system is not equipped to deal with future weather events.

“Shame on us as the council, shame on me as the council person for not doing this six months ago or nine months ago,” Amoroso says. “We had this major flood event and we really have not evaluated the UDC and we continue to develop in hazardous areas.”

LSU plans to bring new data to city-parish officials that will impact the discussion, Duke says, and he wonders if an even deeper review of the UDC will be required once he receives that information.

A review of the UDC, says Duke, could bring changes to things such as limitations to the amount of impervious surfaces, which Baton Rouge currently does not have, or increasing the requirements for stormwater studies. Amoroso’s proposal directs the Planning Commission and Department of Development to study possible changes to the UDC. The Metro Council would have to approve any changes.

One of the most consequential rule changes, and one several experts say is necessary, is changing the city-parish freeboard, or increasing the level above base flood elevation people can build.

National best practice for building requirements is at least one foot above freeboard, the current Baton Rouge standard. But many other places have toughened the standard as severe flooding has become more frequent.

In Virginia, where Duke previously worked, officials several years ago adopted a three-foot freeboard rule.

“(One foot) is good. But for the record floods that we’ve seen, that’s not going to cut it,” says Shandy Heil, an LSU AgCenter expert on flood zones and hazard mitigation.

Before last year’s flood, Baton Rouge’s rule also included an “inundation of record” rule, essentially setting the freeboard standard at either one foot or the highest water mark from previous flooding events, whichever is higher. Under that standard the floodplain baseline would have increased, but council members, citing the burden on homeowners trying to rebuild, waived the higher elevation standards.

“[The August flood’s] high water line would have been a really great base flood elevation,” says LSU law professor Edward Richards, who has researched the impacts of climate change and weather events on coastal communities. “We were given a sign as to the appropriate flood level.”

A key question likely to frame the debate: Was the August flood a freak event or a sign of what’s to come? Richards, skeptical any dramatic changes to the UDC will be made, points to both to the the impact of climate change as well as experts increasingly realizing current floodplain data is outdated.

Regardless, there are those who argue the current rules are not restrictive enough on developers to prevent widespread losses.  

“Every time we have these events, it disrupts the lives of our citizens,” says Carol Friedland, LSU assistant professor of construction management. “And we know it. There’s a 50% chance of all buildings built to the 100-year floodplain of flooding. We know that. We designed it that way.”

Cities and parishes are also incentivized with lower flood insurance policies from the National Flood Insurance Program if they adopt more stringent policies, throwing another factor into the mix for local planners.

—Sam Karlin

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