In literature, typically anything with the word “master” before it is going to be something both controlling and nefarious. For example, if a science fiction novel references a “master computer,” you can bet your last credit that it is either threatening the existence of humanity, or has already wiped us off the globe.
This is why the idea of a “Master Plan” for the City of New Orleans has always been viscerally unsettling to me. It’s as though there’s some cold, unfeeling entity out there that seeks to control every aspect of using property in the city.
Gut feelings can be off, of course, but this one is not.
The city itself describes the Master Plan as “a City Charter-mandated planning framework for the core systems that shape New Orleans’ physical, social, environmental, and economic future.” The city emphasizes that the Master Plan will have “the force of law,” i.e., that it can’t be simply overridden by the a majority council vote.
That sounds a bit scary, at least to me.
The notion is supposed to be that, by creating planning rules that have the force of law, we’ll eliminate the cronyism and corruption that permeates zoning determinations. No more “spot zoning;” no more connected elites running roughshod over the zoning code.
The problem is that the cure is worse than the disease. Unless we decide to loosen zoning restrictions (and that doesn’t seem to be on the table), there are always going to be times when imposing a particular restriction seems to be too onerous and doesn’t serve the public good.
Put simply, imposing a zero-tolerance, “the law is the law” mindset eliminates a necessary safety value from our highly restrictive system of zoning.
The basic concept of the Master Plan was adopted in 2010, but we have yet to implement it by enacting a new comprehensive zoning ordinance. Still, the Master Plan is already being invoked to oppose any council approval of plans that depart from zoning restrictions.
Moreover, a proposed zoning ordinance is already in its final stages. Unsurprisingly, it’s awful. If anything, it strengthens existing zoning restrictions further and fails to properly zone longstanding uses. Those corner businesses, sadly, will still be nonconforming. The need for commonsense exceptions (i.e., the dreaded “spot zoning”) will be even more apparent.
Case in point: This week, a preliminary meeting of the Historic District Landmarks Commission’s Architectural Review Committee was held to discuss the development of the empty lot at the corner of Constance and Harmony Streets. The lot is easily mistaken for a park, as for decades the owner, Ruppert Kohlmaier, has allowed locals to use it as such.
But Kohlmaier’s father bought the land years ago from the Orleans Parish School Board after the demolition of the former school building there, and it is unquestionably private property. The open space has persisted solely as a result of the charity of Mr. Kohlmaier. Alas, due to multiple threats of lawsuits, Kohlmaier was subsequently forced to obtain liability insurance for the lot and eventually closed it off altogether.
Although residents at the HDLC meeting lamented the loss of open space, Kohlmaier made no bones about his right to develop the lot. “‘Save the park.’ What park?” Kohlmaier said. “There’s no park. It’s Mr. Kohlmaier’s personally owned piece of ground.”
Somebody should tell that to the Planning Department.
The new proposed Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance rezones the property from B1-A to park space. One might suspect the zoning change was inadvertent if not for the fact that the prior zoning designation would have unequivocally announced to anyone contemplating a change that it was private land. Of course, I don’t rule out the possibility that the new proposed zoning maps were literally designed by somebody simply driving around and eyeballing properties without the benefit of a single scrap of reference material.
There’s your “Master Plan” right there. Should illegal zoning changes be given “the force of law?” Should laudable charity cause property owners to suffer severe economic loss?
It’s somewhat understandable for private citizens to mistake that private land for a park, but we expect the government to know better than that. If it doesn’t, surely it shouldn’t be hamstrung, even if only theoretically, from correcting its mistakes by a zero-tolerance planning scheme.
My suspicions have been confirmed. It seems to me that the Master Plan is really a magnificent farce.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.