Zoning Practice — January 2011

Ask the Author

Here are reader questions answered by John Jacob and Tommy Pacello authors of the January 2011 Zoning Practice article "Coastal Hazards and Smart Growth."

Question from Mitchell N. Harvey, AICP, Monroe County, Florida:

Regarding post-Katrina planning, the downtown and urban areas of New Orleans survived pretty much unscathed by the effects of Katrina and the resulting levee break. It was the levee break and not the hurricane that resulted in widespread devastation. Since the levee reconstruction still does not extend to bedrock, due the thousands of years of Mississippi River silt buildup, a recurrence of a future levee break is inevitable.

The one area that was totally devastated and is presently being rebuilt is the residential area known as the 9th Ward. This neighborhood is located next to the levee. Even though most FEMA communities require residences to build at designated first floor height requirements, residences in the 9th Ward are allowed to be built 3-feet above grade, which is still below sea level and at least 20 feet below minimum first floor elevations.

Is fiscally and socially responsible to allow and promote the reconstruction of residences within a recognized high hazard area? How can this be considered "Smart Growth"?

Answer from author John Jacob:

Thanks very much for your comment and question. You make an excellent point, and one that we perhaps did not address directly in the paper. The levees you mention are in effect a "moral hazard" that induced people to build where they probably shouldn't have — a recognized high hazard area. Of course you might argue that all of New Orleans is in a high hazard area, and you would be right, but some areas, such as East New Orleans and much of the Lower 9th, are in a high hazard zone within the high hazard zone. So, doubly hazardous.

I would say, then, that rebuilding in the most hazardous zones of New Orleans would not be fiscally responsible, and likely not socially responsible as well. That kind of rebuilding would certainly not be considered "smart growth," and for the most part these were not areas that could be construed as smart growth before the storm anyway. New Orleans has enough high ground that they could completely rebuild in much safer locations. But that "could rebuild" is somewhat fanciful because considerable public will would be required to affect that kind of makeover. And even though I agree with you that many of the devastated neighborhoods should not be rebuilt, there is considerable human heartache associated with their abandonment. There are no easy answers to this situation. Hopefully we can do better where new development occurs — it appears we will have ample opportunity for that!

Answer from author Tommy Pacello:

I would add, and John touched on it, that "smart growth in a 'stupid' place should not be considered smart." Development along the coast presents unique challenges to this statement. At the heart of this dilemma lies the planning question of how much risk is a community willing to accept to knowingly develop in an unsafe place and to what extent can that risk be mitigated through "building specific defense strategies?" I would argue that by building compact, mixed use places on the most resilient (least hazard prone) areas of the community from the start, as opposed to conventional sprawl development, a community increases their capacity, reducing their footprint, and depending on growth may delay or eliminate the need to develop those less resilient lands.

In the case of previously developed, proven high risk areas such as the Lower 9th Ward, the community must make a choice. Rebuild using improved defense structures at the community scale (levees) and at the site scale (building specific strategies such as elevation, floating homes ...) OR relocate to safer land. As John reminds us, there is a high cultural cost associated with relocating people from their historic neighborhoods, and this cost must be considered along with the financial costs. Communities throughout the Louisiana Gulf Coast are struggling with this choice as they continue to recover from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and are forced to adjust to sea level rise, subsidence, and impacts from resource extraction.