Flood concerns dominate conversations about new developments in Baton Rouge

Despite no major tightening of rules or regulations on floodplains, last year’s flood is having a sustained impact on the city-parish planning apparatus, with residents and neighborhood associations turning their attention almost solely to how new projects will exacerbate flood risks.

“Prior to last August the biggest issue we heard from neighborhoods was traffic,” says Planning Director Frank Duke. “Since the flood, traffic has taken a backseat to flooding.”

Residents complaining about new developments planned for their backyard are nothing new, planning officials say. But the marked shift in interest toward flood concerns highlights a contentious, and consequential, debate over whether Baton Rouge is doing enough to protect its citizens from the next major flood, which could happen sooner than previously expected. Some of the more drastic proposals aimed at mitigating that risk would have a serious impact on developers.

Duke notes that he can only require developers to adhere to the rules the city-parish has in place. He can’t create new or more strict rules. And that fact is at the center of several Metro Council proposals aimed at strengthening the Unified Development Code to add more requirements for those who want to develop in floodplains.

It’s not clear exactly how much influence residents had in getting council members to propose changes to the UDC—or a development moratorium, like Metro Councilman Buddy Amoroso has asked for. But Planning Commissioner Todd Sterling says more and more people are attending meetings to question the added flood risk of new developments.

“I don’t think it’s new. It’s always been there—but now I think it’s at the forefront,” Sterling says.

Moving forward, developers will have to make sure they pay close attention to the engineering work on flood controls with new projects, he adds. If they don’t, they will be “fighting” to get the subdivision or site plan approved.

Planning Commissioner Kathryn Juneau says the commission is guided by the UDC, but also has to balance the concerns from neighbors. The UDC should be in a constant state of revision to make sure the rules are up to date, she adds.

Steve Duplechain, the developer of the controversial Lakes at Jones Creek subdivision, has experienced firsthand the renewed interest in flood risk. His subdivision—planned for an area that neighbors say flooded in August 2016—meets the city-parish rules, but has been beset by active neighbors and multiple Metro Council measures that would impact it.

“I do understand the fear the neighbors have expressed,” Duplechain says. “Everybody wants their homes protected. I would, too. I just believe the parish would be treating me pretty unfairly to let me get this far in the process and say we’re going to change the rules.”

—Sam Karlin

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