Metro Council to consider tougher rules for developing in floodplain

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A measure that would tighten restrictions for new development in areas at high risk for flooding—which comprise nearly 50% of East Baton Rouge Parish—is expected to generate a spirited debate at tonight’s Metro Council meeting.

The ordinance, co-sponsored by five of the council’s 12 members, is a watered-down version of a measure originally proposed earlier this summer that came under fire from the development community.

The current version of the ordinance, which council members have billed as a temporary moratorium on building in the floodplain, does not actually ban new development. Rather, it requires developers to adhere to stricter regulations.

Specifically, any major new development in a high-risk flood zone must provide storage to handle stormwater from a 100-year storm—existing regulations require detention for a 25-year storm—or reduce the post-development runoff rate from the predevelopment level by 10%. An earlier version of the measure required developers to do both.

Neighborhood activists, concerned about the increased flooding they have experienced in recent years, have a couple of problems with the ordinance.

• The enhanced regulations do not apply to a development if it is less than 5 acres or if less than 25% of the site is in the floodplain.

• The ordinance only applies to new developments that are being submitted for approval for the first time, which means developers can continue building out phases and filings of existing projects without adhering to the new, tougher standards.

“Think about a subdivision that might be 300 acres,” says Ed Lagucki, president of the Greater Baton Rouge Federation of Civic Associations. “Well, if 25 percent of that subdivision is in the floodplain, do the math. That’s a lot of land, maybe 75 acres or so.”

Lagucki believes a lot of projects will be exempt because they’re either less than 5 acres or are 25% or less located in the floodplain. The federation has identified 40 cases that have come before the Planning Commission this year, he says.

“Of those 40, if you apply these exemptions, 75 percent of them would have been exempt,” he says. “So when you deal with the data it brings a different perspective to it.”

Council member Rowdy Gaudet, who is the lead sponsor of the ordinance, says he has met with the federation as well as key stakeholders from a number of groups, including the Growth Coalition, Sierra Club and Homebuilders’ Association. He acknowledges there are various concerns from all sides but says it’s important for Baton Rouge to at least begin a conversation about how to develop more sensibly in an era of climate change.

“I think we will have a very good, robust discussion tonight,” he says. “This is a conversation our community is having right now and we need to have it here.”

Lagucki says he will advocate for a more comprehensive approach that would involve rewriting chapter 15 of the Unified Development Code, which deals with drainage and flooding. That way, everything would be on the table for discussion and the impacts would be more long term.

“This way, who’s going to oppose any new development,” he says. “The developers will just say they’re adhering to the new stringent standards and who’s going to reject them?”

The council meets at 4 p.m. at City Hall.