Post-Hurricane Planning Efforts Falter in Louisiana

Hurricane Katrina’s devastation sparked a sweeping planning survey in Louisiana that called for improved transit operations, stronger land-use policies and coordinated state work to make it all happen.

The 2007 effort, called Louisiana Speaks, won national planning awards and received praise from state officials and planning experts as a roadmap for ways to build stronger and smarter in the storm’s aftermath.

“Because we haven’t had an ethic of good planning, we’ve pushed ourselves into places that aren’t safe, that are prone to disasters, that are difficult if not impossible to insure,” said Sean Reilly, a member of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which launched Louisiana Speaks as a long-term community planning effort after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

But a year and a half later, many of the larger proposals haven’t progressed, and the overarching state planning office touted as the linchpin of the recommendations still is on the drawing board.

Supporters who helped craft the post-hurricane planning effort said Louisiana Speaks has prompted robust land-use policies and zoning changes by local officials that had long been absent in Louisiana.

Community leaders are looking at which areas should be off-limits to development because of vulnerability to storms and at how to encourage redevelopment of blighted areas, rather than encouraging sprawl, said Elizbeth “Boo” Thomas, president and CEO of the Center for Planning Excellence. CPEX is a nonprofit organization that is charged with helping apply the recommendations of Louisiana Speaks in local, regional and state planning efforts.

“What we’re seeing is that we’ve had a lot of local buy-in,” Thomas said of Louisiana Speaks. “I think when you see the new understanding in these low-lying parishes about not rebuilding public facilities in those low-lying areas and beginning to look at things in a more comprehensive way, there’s been a huge shift in attitude and in development.”

Cities like Lafayette and Lake Charles adopted Louisiana Speaks recommendations as guidance tools as they work on new master plans. Abbeville created a planning commission after Louisiana Speaks, and Tangipahoa Parish established a planning department. New Orleans, which has floundered in attempts since Katrina to make any definitive redevelopment plans, is working on a city master plan expected to be completed in the summer.

Thomas acknowledged, however, that broader, coordinated planning efforts have been stymied by the lack of a central state planning office – and the state money to help parishes change how people build homes and communities.

“The key to me is getting that Office of State Planning,” Thomas said.

At least 28 other states have some sort of coordinated statewide planning effort.

A statewide planning office was envisioned as a way to coordinate large, regional or state construction projects, transportation projects and other development spending to ensure the best use of public dollars and to guide growth and development in Louisiana.

“You really, I don’t think, can get anything done unless you’ve got somebody from a statewide level coordinating things, someone to hold accountable,” said Donna Fraiche, a former LRA board member who helped create Louisiana Speaks.

The LRA hired Eric Shaw as planning director in July, and part of Shaw’s duties is to recommend the framework for a state planning office, including possible programs, a budget for the office and staffing needs.

However, Shaw had no timeline for when he expected to make a recommendation to the governor or lawmakers for the office – or when it could be up and running. Instead, he said he’s working first to strengthen local planning efforts.

To create the Louisiana Speaks recommendations, state residents were polled about land use, transportation and coastal restoration.

Thousands who responded to the poll overwhelmingly supported coastal protection efforts and backed development plans for communities that would limit sprawl, improve public transportation and restrict new development in areas vulnerable to hurricanes.

A team of national planners and consultants hired by the LRA used the results, along with case studies from other cities, to design the Louisiana Speaks recommendations. They were adopted by the LRA in May 2007.

Among those recommendations were broad priorities of building “greener” and focusing public dollars on ways to attack blight.

More specific recommendations were: to build a high-speed rail line to link Baton Rouge and New Orleans, to create a state trust fund to spend money on projects that revitalize downtowns and historic districts, to create a trust fund to buy up high-risk land and to compensate developers for giving conservation easements that preserve wetlands, and to establish the Office of State Planning.

None of those specific suggestions have happened, though state officials say they are still being considered.

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