Written by Walter Pierce
Wednesday, 31 March 2010

A comprehensive plan for Lafayette Parish is on the horizon, but what will it look like and who will buy in?

When Lafayette City-Parish Council Chairman Jay Castille announced 10 days ago at the Building Communities Conference in Toledo Bend that he would support funding a comprehensive master plan for Lafayette Parish, it was a kumbaya moment for City-Parish President Joey Durel, who was sitting beside Castille at the chamber of commerce-sponsored event. It was also a positive development for supporters of growth management in the parish and an about-face for Castille; six months ago the north Lafayette politician and land developer was among a four-vote minority that tried to strip $400,000 in funding for a comprehensive plan from Lafayette Consolidated Government’s $587 million budget. Durel got his down payment on a comprehensive plan — the $400,000 represents roughly one third of the estimated fee a top consulting firm will charge the parish to produce such a detailed document (commensurate with the approximately $900,000 the school system is paying a Baton Rouge consulting firm to develop a comprehensive facilities master plan) — and he will line item the second 400K installment in the budget he submits this August. He got it by the skin of his teeth last year, 5-4; but with Castille on board and assuming no other council member changes his mind on funding a comprehensive plan, Durel now has six council members on board.

But that budget request still may be a hard sell in light of an ongoing decline in sales tax revenues which, Durel warned at the Feb. 2 State of the Parish Address, could precipitate some fiscal belt-tightening. “Yes, I think it’s going to be a little more difficult for the council,” Durel admits. “For me, it’s not that difficult because I think this is the very time we need to be planning.” Durel adds that he sees a leveling off of the sales tax decline by year’s end.

A comprehensive master plan will seek to manage virtually every aspect of Lafayette’s growth and prosperity over the coming decades — from essential public works projects like transportation and drainage, to concerns such as funding for culture and recreation as well as ensuring the retirement plans of municipal employees remain solvent. “My belief is that it’s critical, not just a question of is it a good time,” insists the second term Republican. “Like the LUS rate increase, it’s critical. The saving grace, for me, and I’m hoping the council will see it the same way, is I’m not ever asking them to put up tax dollars to do this. This is money that’s coming from Planning, Zoning and Codes, money that we have in a savings account that has been put in there by, of all things, permits.”

What the Durel administration is huddling to figure out is what the scope of a comprehensive plan would be. Lafayette, after all, is not a truly consolidated parish; the smaller municipalities — Broussard, Carencro, Duson, Scott and Youngsville — remain sovereign and entitled via the City-Parish Home Rule Charter to pretty much do as they please, including thumbing their noses at a comprehensive plan. Durel anticipates LCG will first seek consensus and ask the five communities in Lafayette’s orbit to join — and help fund — the plan. But the parish chief executive adds that the small towns might also be inclined to adopt aspects of the plan after they become implemented: “It could end up being that it’s just Lafayette and the unincorporated area that’s the direct recipient and the responsible parties of the comprehensive plan and that those towns kind of look at it in the end a say, ‘These are some pretty good things; let’s adopt some of these things.’”

Beyond the council members who resisted funding the plan last year, not everyone in Lafayette government is buying in at this point.

“Frankly, I don’t even see why they’re talking about a comprehensive plan,” says Lafayette Parish Tax Assessor Conrad Comeaux. “For what? Hell, you’re not even willing to talk about zoning in the unincorporated areas, why are you going to bring in the discussion of a comprehensive plan?”

A former representative on the old Lafayette Parish Council, Comeaux is an increasingly outspoken proponent of repealing the charter and deconsolidating LCG. He believes a comprehensive plan, if funded and implemented, will accelerate the very thing that long kept parish government operating at a subsistence level: the small towns annexing unincorporated parts of the parish and taking the tax base with it. Asks Comeaux, “Why are you spending a half million dollars to even begin thinking about this if you don’t think through the political implications first?” Comeaux insists that when property owners in unincorporated Lafayette Parish realize the ramifications of land-use rules tied to a comprehensive plan, they will make a bee line to the small towns and seek annexation as a shield against the comprehensive plan.

Durel shrugs his shoulders: “That’s not a concern for me, but it’s a possibility,” he says. “Sometimes people get what they ask for, and I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to know that property is most valuable in the city of Lafayette.”

The launch of a comprehensive plan for the parish comes as an ordinance that would place deconsolidation of LCG before voters idles in limbo. Deconsolidation will not come up for a vote in 2010, and by all indications the major players — Durel, the council, civic and business leaders — are backing away from the idea entirely. It’s unclear what effect a vote to repeal the charter would have on a comprehensive plan already in place, but Durel says he doesn’t see it as an issue. “I think a lot of the talk about deconsolidation overly complicates the issues and, first of all, I don’t think we’re going to deconsolidate — I just don’t see it as a realistic possibility.”

And what of LINC — Lafayette in the Next Century — that visionary document compiled a decade ago by both paid personnel in LCG’s planning department as well as scores of community volunteers? Now a decade into that next century, LINC has been sitting on a shelf. It, like a comprehensive plan, lays out a vision for how Lafayette should manage its growth in the coming decades; thousands of hours of intellectual equity were poured into LINC.

Durel insists LINC will be an integral part of the comprehensive plan, a starting point, but says it falls far short of what a comprehensive plan will accomplish. “LINC is a vision, but it lacks much detail as required for a master plan,” Durel says. “My attitude has already been, whoever the consultant is, the first thing we do is hand them LINC and say here’s something this community put together nine years ago and these are the things that are important to us as a community, and I think they would take that as a starting point. LINC can play a role, and it won’t have gone to waste, but LINC is far, far, far from a master plan.”

This week Durel is expected to decide who he will select to write the all-important request for proposals that will be issued to the top planning firms in the country. (The Independent Weekly goes to press Monday night; Durel may have made his selection by now.) His first choice is Charles Landry, a Lafayette native and Baton Rouge attorney with the Jones Walker firm who almost single-handedly brought the Shaw Center in downtown Baton Rouge to life. But according to Durel, Landry has recommended that LCG select the Baton Rouge-based Center for Planning Excellence.

Durel estimates the fee for the RFP alone will be about $25,000. No matter who writes it, the request for proposals will need to be exquisitely detailed to give the consultants competing for the project a clear picture of what Lafayette as a city and a parish wants. “To adopt a comprehensive plan,” Durel says, “to me it’s a complete failure if it doesn’t get nine out of nine votes on the complete council, on most issues.”

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