Plan targets sprawl as Lafayette grows

The “comprehensive plan” endorsed by the City-Parish Council last week is a list of some 400 separate strategies to address Lafayette’s growth in the coming decades. But one clear theme emerges: Sprawl is the enemy.

The plan, which has been in the works for two years, is a guidebook for new policies, regulations and initiatives on a wide range of issues, from public safety and parks to economic development, education, drainage and the arts.

But the issues likely to be the most difficult and controversial in the coming years are those touching on residential and commercial development.

The history of Lafayette’s development in recent decades has been one of more and more subdivisions taking shape in the rural areas outside the city, a pattern that in turn drives demand for new roads, new utility lines, good drainage and better fire protection — all of which cost more and more money.

“People are starting to realize that this is a real issue, and we are growing and we have to respond in some way,” said City-Parish Councilman Don Bertrand, a vocal supporter of the comprehensive plan.

Consultants for city-parish government estimate there will be 90,000 more residents in Lafayette Parish by 2030, pushing the population up to 310,000.

“They say 90,000 in 20 years. I think we could see that in 10 years,” Bertrand said.

The plan, in one sense, is an attempt to figure out where to put all those people.

“It’s going to be an educational process for everybody,” Bertrand said. “We are going to have to develop a city that is more populated.”

Even if no efforts were made to encourage more urban development, Lafayette Parish would eventually face the limits imposed by simple geography.

As the plan points out, Lafayette is an unusually small parish, and, at some point, there will be no more available land not subject to regular flooding.

Bertrand said encouraging growth within the city limits also has the practical effect of saving money because “it’s cheaper to build in areas where there is already infrastructure.”

The comprehensive plan does not call for a moratorium on rural development but rather suggests strategies that would make it easier to develop within existing population centers.

A critical piece is an overhaul of development regulations that could come before the council by the end of the year.

The new codes, if approved, would remove hurdles for the types of developments the City-Parish Chief Development Officer Kevin Blanchard said are needed to meet a growing desire for a diversity of urban living options. Those options include mixed-used developments of retail, residential and offices space and high-density multi-family developments.

Current zoning and development regulations in the city tend to favor traditional residential neighborhoods, and if a developer proposes something outside that mold, they usually “have to jump through so many hoops,” Blanchard said.

“We kind of have a one-size-fits-all set of development rules,” he said.

The proposed overhaul of the development codes doesn’t make it harder to develop conventional housing, Blanchard said, but rather aims to broaden the range of options.

“Our problem right now is that we don’t have a lot of good choices,” he said.

And in a city where one-story buildings are the norm, Bertrand said he expects changes that will make it easier for multi-story developments, which allow more businesses and people on the same patch of ground.

“There is going to be a big learning curve, because we are going to have to start building up,” he said.

Beyond the development codes, the comprehensive plan also calls for a different way of thinking about where to invest in new roads, utility lines and drainage projects.

Instead of thinking only about where the demand is, the comprehensive plan calls for considering such things as what type of development a new road might encourage and whether that development will ever pay for the public infrastructure required to service it.

“The general idea is, let’s have a metric-based, analytical way to make decisions about capital projects,” Blanchard said. “If you spend that money, what sort of development is likely? What sort of tax base would that create? What is the impact on cost of services?” Ultimately, the council would decide which projects move forward.

“This would still just be one tool in the tool kit,” Blanchard said.

Whether a majority of the council will be on board with any or all of the recommendations in the comprehensive plan remains to be seen.

“It’s kind of a vision, a pretty picture. That’s what it is now,” City-Parish President Joey Durel said at the Tuesday meeting where the council voted 6-3 to endorse the plan.

Even some councilmen who voted in support had questions about the particulars. They talked of possible amendments down the road, but few voiced objections to the big-picture goals.

Most of the public comments at the meeting favored the plan, but resident Ross Little Jr. worried about sections touching on the possibility of new taxes.

“I do believe there are many tax-and-spend items in this plan,” he said.

Durel said at the meeting that city-parish officials might consider new taxes, regardless of what happens with the plan, .

“With or without a plan, there will always be discussion of taxes,” he said.

Councilman William Theriot, who voted against the plan, said he is concerned about what he believes could be a spate of new regulations on developments in rural areas if the council follows through with the recommendations.

Theriot also questioned whether the majority of parish residents are really behind the plan, despite the public outreach and series of community forums held to craft the recommendations.

“What may be plans and ideas for some may not be the plans and ideas of others,” he said.

To view the comprehensive plan, visit planlafayette.com.