In zoning-free Livingston, you can ‘build a dynamite factory’ next to a house. That may change. | State Politics

When a sprawling mess of neon-colored, battlefield-style obstacle courses started growing between houses on a residential road in Walker, some Livingston Parish officials were concerned — but there wasn’t much they could do about it.

It took months of reports about unruly crowds, people urinating on neighbors’ fences and errant digging on the property before Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks put a cease-and-desist order on Guerrilla Warfare Paintball in May of this year. The business closed a month later.

Ricks’ decision to put his foot down sparked fury from some residents. But it was actually a rare exception to a longstanding policy of non-interference that Livingston Parish officials use when oddly-located developments appear there.

Owner Justin King ran afoul of permits he’d obtained, necessitating the cease-and-desist order, according to Ricks. In most other instances where potentially-inappropriate developments materialized in the parish, however, officials couldn’t rein them in — like when a shooting range in Springfield was planned near peoples’ backyards, or when a mining project popped up behind a residential subdivision in Watson.

That’s because Livingston Parish has no zoning: land-use laws saying what kinds of development can proceed, and where. In the resulting regulatory vacuum, a lack of authority leaves the Parish Council with neither justification nor authority to halt developments that might not fit the community.

Strange neighbors have abounded over the years in the conservative parish where residents tend to bristle at government oversight.

“Technically, anybody could build a dynamite factory next to a residential area as long as they meet the ordinance,” said Gerald Burns, a longtime member of Livingston’s planning commission, when the parish last weighed zoning, in 2019.

That could soon change. Driven by a renewed sense of urgency prompted by 2016’s widespread floods and a surge in development, the council is poised to finally vote on a parish-wide land use ordinance.

“You’ve got people who are flooding now who never used to flood before,” said Tracy Girlinghouse, a Walker-area councilman who championed the rules, “because four feet of dirt are piled up where water used to go.”

If passed, the rules would follow years of negotiating between officials who want the parish to be more thoughtful about development and those from rural districts whose constituents cherish the right to use land without government interference. Most of Livingston Parish’s development is occurring on its western corridor, along I-12. 

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Introduced to the nine-member Council on Thursday, the ordinance would splice Livingston Parish into zones ranging in scale from agricultural-residential to heavy-industrial. In between are categories like residential-single family, residential-multi family, mobile home lots and downtown development areas. A map of the zoned categories will be introduced at a later date.

Zoning debates kicked off in Livingston with the drafting of the Federal Emergency Management Agency-funded Envision Livingston Master Plan eight years ago. Approved by the council but never implemented, the plan identified zoning as the bedrock of the parish’s ability to survive future flooding and development. The document also called for new investment in roads, water and sewer systems.

A lack of predictability about future development spurs fights over individual land use decisions in the parish, the plan found. Without zoning, ambiguities over where and how development can happen discourages quality new projects by breeding uncertainty about who can enter next-door lots, it said. And it complicates construction of new roads and other infrastructure.

The Parish Council in 2019 formed a committee to review the advisory plan and build zoning ordinances from its suggestions. But the panel’s work was sidelined by COVID. The council’s ordinance committee chose to move ahead with its own ordinance rather than paying to redraft the now-obsolete master plan.

Opposition by council members from eastern rural districts, big landowners and commercial developers appeared formidable enough to sink efforts to pass zoning just two years ago, though an ordinance was never put to a vote.

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Now, persistent concerns about flooding, the continued bustle of new development, and lobbying by pro-zoning council members has shifted public opinion enough, supporters believe, to make passing the ordinance achievable.

“At a certain point, my thought process was that we’d be taking away peoples’ property rights by zoning the parish,” said Shane Mack, an Albany-area councilman who opposed zoning in 2019 but has since changed his mind. “In writing these land usages, the council members who drafted them didn’t take property rights away, so much as zoning them properly to bring good development going forward.”

Some municipalities in Livingston Parish already have zoning codes on their books. One of them is Walker, home to a growing population and a slew of new commercial buildings. Another is Denham Springs, the parish’s biggest city, where the population dipped slightly after the 2020 census but where controversial subdivisions have still appeared recently.

In the bayou-crossed Florida Parishes, supporters of zoning often say it can help stop flooding — one of the most urgent and contentious political issues in Livingston. More development covers more land in concrete, obstructing water runoff and posing greater risk to flood-prone areas. Zoning, proponents say, can reduce that risk.

In Denham Springs, where 93% of structures flooded in 2016, zoning regulations have formed an important piece of the city’s planning for the future, said Mayor Gerard Landry.

“It prevents so many problems,” said Landry. “It keeps commercial (development) where it needs to be and residential where it needs to be, so you don’t end up with a Walmart in the middle of a subdivision.”

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Frustrations over flood fallout and unfettered development are driving support for zoning in Livingston Parish; they have also stirred interest in land use rules in the parish’s eastern neighbor, Tangipahoa, which likewise has no zoning.

But elsewhere in the United States — mostly in progressive hubs with cutthroat housing markets — residents are starting to push back against zoning they think has gotten out of control.

In Charlottesville, Va., the city’s planning commission is grappling over whether to change zoning laws that excluded Black residents. In San Francisco, Calif., experts linked the city’s lack of affordable living options for hourly-wage workers to land use ordinances.

Recently, Denham Springs dealt with its own dispute over affordable housing access and zoning. Residents of an affordable housing complex destroyed by the 2016 floods pleaded with the City Council this spring to rezone a lot currently occupied by a concrete plant so that their homes could be rebuilt using a FEMA grant. The council blocked the proposal.

A representative from the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center told the council that its decision likely ran afoul of the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits local governments from making zoning decisions that “exclude or otherwise discriminate against individuals” because of skin color, disability, sex, religion or national origin, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Often, disputes over inequities in zoning emerge from a lack of options for homeowners, like when a town or city is zoned single-family only. But the tentative zoning language for Livingston — slated for a vote and public hearing on Aug. 26 — has 18 categories with allowances for apartment complexes, multi-family lots and “garden homes” as well as single-family homes.

And supporters say a rainy 2021 has only made it clearer something needs to be done.

“State rainfall averages are around 60 inches, and the area was at 48 inches a little over halfway through the year,” said John Cavalier, a business owner and new member of Denham Springs’ Planning and Zoning Commission. “That seems like a strong indicator that we’ve got to figure out how we want to move forward rather than just being afraid of it.”

Robert Burns’ voice breaks when recounting how the Comite River left its banks, flowed over stacked-up sandbags and rushed into his house.