Officials in Ascension and Livingston parishes are contemplating limits on the amount of dirt, or fill, people use to elevate homes and other structures, in an effort to mitigate flooding in the parishes, which were both heavily impacted by the 2016 flood.
But developers are urging caution, concerned about making premature changes to building codes, which may have unintended ramifications, such as increasing housing prices.
Dirt mounds are often used to raise buildings in order to meet federal flood elevation guidelines, but higher-elevated subdivisions and developments can exacerbate flooding issues in nearby lower-lying areas.
Livingston Parish has no limit on the amount of fill property owners can use. In recent weeks, the parish council began a discussion on whether it should impose a three-foot fill restriction, as well as have developers submit drainage plans.
While the parish doesn’t want to impede on property rights or hinder development, they also want to protect existing homes and businesses from flooding in the future, says Livingston Parish Councilman Garry Talbert, chairman of the ordinance committee.
“We want to protect everyone but don’t want to take property out of commerce,” Talbert says. “It’s a balancing act we’re trying to address.”
Ascension Parish, meanwhile, already has a three-foot fill limit on lots under half an acre. But the ordinance is vague and enforcement has been difficult, so parish officials are eyeing potential changes that would clear up the language to allow for better enforcement and more comprehensive limits, based on recommendations from an HNTB study.
Developers, however, say putting a cap on fill means builders have to turn to other, more expensive materials to elevate buildings.
“That discussion has to be looked into to see what the ramifications are,” says local homebuilder Billy Ward. “If we start saying let’s regulate fill, the only other choice is pier and beam, which is more expensive. It will increase the cost of housing.”
Ward—who serves on the national Multihazard Mitigation Council and the International Code Council—also points to changes coming to the National Flood Insurance Program, adding that before local officials start altering codes, they should wait to see what happens on the federal level.
There are also ongoing flood studies in Ascension and East Baton Rouge parishes that, developers say, should be completed before enacting new rules.
“It’s premature to make decisions until we have all the facts,” says developer Rusty Golden, vice president of the Baton Rouge Growth Coalition. “We realize something needs to be done, but it needs to be done right.”
But some local officials are pushing for changes now so they can prevent disasters in the future. Ascension Parish Councilman Daniel Satterlee, former chairman of the strategic planning committee, says his job is to protect the safety and welfare of the people he serves, and he intends to do it.
“A lot of places where we’re building don’t have proper infrastructure in place,” Satterlee says. “Either we shouldn’t be building or we should be imposing restrictions. It’s not a question of if but when we will have another event like the 2016 flood. In the meantime, I hope we do what’s best for us.”