Council committee tables 'Duck' tours ordinance

A New Orleans City Council committee on Tuesday agreed to hold off on an ordinance that would have effectively scuttled a proposed new tourist attraction to take visitors on amphibious vehicles from the French Quarter to Lake Pontchartrain.

Gray Line Tours wants to operate the “Ride the Ducks” tour, but requires that it start in the French Quarter and end up at the lake, where the boats on wheels would dive in for a cruise.

A proposed ordinance by the council’s transportation committee, however, would have banned “amphibious transportation” tours from operating in council districts A or C, which include both the Quarter and parts of the city near the lake.

After appeals from Gray Line, Councilwomen Kristin Gisleson Palmer and Susan Guidry, who represent those areas and wrote the ordinance, agreed to hold off to see if a compromise could be reached.

“If nothing can be worked out, the ban can be imposed later,” said Scott Whittaker, an attorney for Gray Line.

The company has said it would board the Duck boats at its Toulouse Street wharf location along the Mississippi River. They would then make a short trip along the edge of the Quarter to Canal Street with an end point of the Bonnabel boat launch in Metairie.

Plans call for three Ducks to offer three to four tours a day during peak tourist seasons.

However, the council and several neighborhood groups have opposed the idea, fearing that the vehicles will only add to congestion along North Peters Street in the upper Quarter.

They also argue the tours — omnipresent sights in some other cities — do not fit in with the unique character of the historic neighborhood.

“This vehicle is totally out of character for the Quarter,” said Bob Simms, a neighborhood resident and member of the French Quarter Management District, which opposes the tours. “It should not be allowed in the city period.”

During Tuesday’s meeting — at least the third time the issue has been heard during a public meeting since May — Gordon Stevens, president and CEO of Gray Line Tours, said that his company was “a bit dismayed and disappointed” at the delays the plan has faced. He said company officials were unaware of the proposed ordinance until Friday.

During a May meeting of the transportation committee, its members received a promise from the Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration to hold off on approving permits for the tours while the city attorney worked to figure out what, if any, oversight the council has to regulate them.

Council members during that meeting said they did not know if the council could prevent other groups from coming into the city with similar tours or if it could prevent an existing company from starting its own Duck tours.

That question remained unanswered on Tuesday, though Palmer again expressed concern that there could be other operators in the future who would try to begin their own Duck tours.

Palmer said she is not against the tours in theory, but that the Quarter already is cluttered with vehicles, including private cars, carriages, pedicabs and double-decker busses.

“This is an issue of timing, quite frankly” Palmer said. “This is an issue of a vehicle we haven’t seen before and we’re trying to approach this responsibly.”

At the suggestion of Councilman James Gray, the committee decided to delay voting on the proposed ordinance, that also would prohibit the “duck quacker” noise makers and amplified music used by Duck tours in other cities.

Palmer, who lauded the idea of taking visitors out of the Quarter and into Jefferson Parish and the lakefront area, said she would like to see other proposed routes for the tours, adding that the neighborhood in general needs a “serious transportation plan that addresses the immense amount of the pressure.”

“We have a higher responsibility to protect that place, and we have not done a good job,” Palmer said.