Cover Story

Growing Pains

by Nathan Stubbs

Lafayette officials look to other communities for "smart growth" answers to fund and maintain a viable city infrastructure.

When Lafayette Planning Commissioner John Barras went online searching for a progressive city similar in size and feel to Lafayette, Lincoln, Neb., stood out. Its visitors' bureau Web site bills it as "the prairie capital" with a reputation for food, arts, and warm hospitality. And much like Lafayette's atmosphere, Lincoln "offers the exhilaration of a big city and the serenity of the countryside all in one place."

Most important, Lincoln has been heralded for being one of the most well-managed "smart growth" cities in the country. Smart growth, which encourages denser developments with a mix of both commercial and residential properties, along with sidewalk-friendly streets and green space, has been a buzz word in Lafayette since the runaway success of traditional neighborhood development River Ranch. Last year, the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce made smart growth its platform issue ' and it was the chamber that asked Barras to locate a city Lafayette could use as a model for implementing more smart growth practices. The effort culminated with Barras and representatives from the chamber and Lafayette Consolidated Government heading out on a two-day fact-finding trip to Lincoln last November.

In Lincoln, which has a population of 240,000, they saw some major differences with Lafayette. Streets are pedestrian friendly. Neighborhood parks and green space dot the city landscape. And traffic congestion is almost non-existent, to the point where it only takes about 20 minutes to traverse the city at any time of day during the week.

"The traffic situation is much, much better than ours," Barras says. "I would say on a Saturday afternoon or an early Saturday morning here [in Lafayette] is about what the traffic is like in Lincoln all day during the week."

Downtown, they saw few empty lots or vacated buildings. And with new developments, including a 14-screen movie theater, the old downtown continues to evolve.

On their bus tour, they were amazed by the way Lincoln's bustling city streets, dense with development, almost instantly give way to serene countryside and farmland once they crossed city limits. "Sprawl is really not a problem as far as they're concerned," Barras says.

Credit for that goes to Lincoln's aggressive zoning and development laws. "The way it's set up with them, if you develop a subdivision out of the area, you're in trouble cause you can't get sewage or water to it."

Lincoln actually goes even further than restricting access to its city utilities as a tool for controlling development. Lincoln's zoning jurisdiction extends for three miles outside the city limits. These regulations typically prohibit anyone outside the city limits with less than 20 acres of land from building a house. The rules have kept developers from buying up cheap farmland outside the city to build subdivisions and helped preserve Lincoln's countryside. The city also uses an array of other tools ' including Tax Increment Financing districts, impact fees (charging developers about $4,000 for every lot developed in the city) and other zoning measures ' to shape development that complements the city's own transportation, drainage and land use plans.

Recently, Lincoln even went as far as adopting a zoning regulation related to movie theaters, which prohibits theaters with more than six screens anywhere outside of the designated downtown district.

Marvin Krout, the city's planning director of the past three years, says the law "puts an emphasis on trying to concentrate the entertainment downtown, and not have these giant megaplexes out in the more suburban areas." The theater policy played a big part in helping downtown Lincoln land the city's latest megaplex ' a development which also got assistance from downtown's Tax Increment Financing district.

Krout says smart growth is just as much about using tax money more efficiently as it is about preserving green space or other quality of life issues.

"In the end, having growth that's compact and contiguous means less dollars spent than otherwise would be on infrastructure and annual services. If you're less spread out you have fewer fire stations to build," he adds. "Each fire station here costs about $2 million a year to operate after you spend $2 million to build it. So those are huge expenses, and to the extent that you can have good service but have a compact community, that's a real savings to taxpayers."

Barras, who served as chair of the Lafayette Planning Commission over the past two years, says Lafayette has a lot to learn from Lincoln.

"We need to cut the sprawl out," Barras says. "What is the problem with that? We have no infrastructure to support sprawl development. I mean, let's face it, you go down Verot School Road any time between 7 and 8:30 in the morning and it'll take you 45 minutes to an hour to get where you're going. We have no infrastructure."

The trip to Lincoln came at a time when many city leaders were re-evaluating Lafayette's future. In November, most local officials were stunned when city voters overwhelmingly shot down a proposal from City-Parish President Joey Durel to increase sales taxes by 1 cent in order to fund sorely needed road and drainage projects throughout the parish.

While most people agree the city needs more roads, the sales tax still proved unpalatable to most residents.

"Joey Durel, his mindset was right about the tax proposal," notes Broussard Mayor Charlie Langlinais. "What he did not do was reinforce to the citizens that if these improvements would be built, they estimate a 20 percent decrease in travel time for our average citizen. And we can prove by using our studies and data that a 20 percent reduction in travel time equates to six to eight gallons less per vehicle per month in fuel. And so, who are you paying? You pay yourself or you pay the pump. It's just too simple not to understand that concept. I think that was his mistake. He did not get that information out and make people understand that."

Durel stumped for the sales tax for months, selling it as "the most dedicated tax in the history of Lafayette" and a means for the city to "take control of our own destiny." In large part, the sales tax proposal was framed as a do-it-yourself attitude that grew out of the state telling Lafayette that it would soon be unable to pay for the roads it had promised.

"Now of course everyone's heard that the state has this largesse of surplus funds," says Lafayette Planning Director Mike Hollier. "But that's outside of the transportation program."

Louisiana's transportation budget is funded through a state gasoline tax of 20 cents for every gallon sold. As in many parts of the country, revenues from the gas tax are starting to dwindle as cars become more fuel-efficient. At the same time, the cost of building new roads and maintaining existing ones is skyrocketing. In the past two years, the prices of concrete and asphalt have each gone up by 50 percent. Steel and labor costs have also increased considerably.

Projections from Louisiana's Department of Transportation and Development indicate that in 2009, these market forces would converge and drain the budget for building new road projects. Hollier says DOTD sent out a letter to parish governments last July, asking them to start removing from transportation plans all state road projects scheduled to begin construction beyond 2009. The letter stated that without sufficient funds to build the projects, federal guidelines required these projects be removed from state and parish plans. DOTD Communications Director Mark Lambert did not return a phone call or e-mail for comment.

Over the next five years, Lafayette will see construction begin on three major road projects funded largely through state and federal funds: the South College Road bridge and extension to Kaliste Saloom Road, Ambassador Caffery south (extending Ambassador to U.S. Highway 90), and the widening of Verot School Road from Highway 90 to Vincent Road.

Beyond 2009, the state likely won't be able to fund any major new road projects in Lafayette until DOTD finds a way to increase its revenue.

Lafayette is now removing six projects from its Transportation 2030 plan. The projects total more than $110 million and include a Highway 93 extension, Broussard Road improvements, and the Kaliste Saloom and North University road widenings. Those are only a fraction of an estimated $10-13 billion backlog of road projects at DOTD.

For Kam Movassaghi, president of C.H. Fenstermaker & Associates, the state's unwillingness to fund its transportation needs was a point of continual frustration while he served as secretary of DOTD from 1998 to 2004.

He says studies show that transportation pays for itself six to 10 times over in economic development activity once roads are built. But he says Louisiana's state leaders have lacked the political willpower to find a way to invest in a progressive transportation system.

"It takes leadership," he says. "It takes the governor to take ownership and stand up and say, 'I know you don't want to pay more taxes, but this is good for your future and your children's future and we're going to do it.' That's what [Texas] Gov. Rick Perry has done. We haven't had that. I haven't heard any one of the governors that either I've served with or observed stand up and say that."

With the state not providing any direction, Movassaghi commends Durel for taking the initiative and trying to find local solutions for Lafayette's transportation needs. With tax increases now clearly out of the picture, Durel has teamed with state Sen. Mike Michot and Treasurer John Kennedy to push a new plan for the May legislative session.

The plan calls for the state to divert an annual estimated total of $270 million in motor vehicle sales taxes back to municipalities across the state to use at a local level for road needs. The details of the proposal are still being ironed out, with debates ongoing about how the money will be allocated across the state, and whether cities should only be able to use those funds to help care for roads currently under DOTD jurisdiction.

Michot says the plan could mean an additional $10-15 million a year for road maintenance in Lafayette. But the proposal has met some criticism ' including an indignant editorial in The Advocate ' for not going far enough in restricting local government's use of the money. Others have doubted whether lawmakers will be willing to give up $270 million that now goes into the state general fund.

Michot remains optimistic. The bottom line, he says, is that the old model of funding doesn't work, especially for areas like Lafayette, which don't get their fair share back from the state. Because so many rural parishes don't generate enough gas tax revenue to meet their infrastructure needs, wealthy parishes like Lafayette wind up subsidizing other parishes to meet demand.

"The larger, more affluent parishes are typically donor parishes," Michot says. "Our feeling is that this centralized method of funding roads just doesn't work anymore. You know we send all of this money to Baton Rouge and then try to beg for some of it back. And basically we're at the mercy of DOTD all the time. We'd like to see the money sent directly to the parishes."

Regardless of where the money comes from, Hollier says the parish needs to make a serious effort to explore all its options.

"The cost of those projects is not going down," he says. "It is skyrocketing. And we don't have skyrocketing revenues. So the reality of the situation is we've got to turn around and look at what we've been doing and how we've been doing it, and come up with another game plan. The previous method is not going to work. Everything is up in the air, and no one knows where it's all going to settle."

Hollier says that Lafayette has a $1 billion traffic problem, estimating that it would take approximately $1 billion to bring traffic across Lafayette to "an acceptable level of service" ' one that didn't back up with congestion. In addition, the parish millages dedicated to funding drainage improvements and parks and recreation are woefully inadequate.

The answer, in the long term, may be smart growth. By more aggressively planning and directing development, the city can make better use of its existing resources. And by pulling development back into the city core, drivers can use the smaller streets of the urban grid, alleviating traffic from congested arterials. Denser development also tends to offer residents more walkable destinations, further reducing vehicle traffic.

"Some of the biggest complaints we hear," Hollier says, "is that all people get in Lafayette is a subdivision, that's their only choice. Now River Ranch has changed that quite a bit. But we need more choices."

In his opinion, Barras says that perhaps the silver lining in the failure of Durel's sales tax proposal ' an initiative he supported ' is that it will encourage parish officials to focus more on smart growth. He says without good planning, the parish will never be able to solve its infrastructure problems.

"The sales tax [passing] would have been more of an immediate help," Barras says. "But I think we need more long-term help, and smart growth initiatives will do that."

Developer Robert Daigle, who brought traditional neighborhood development and smart growth principles to Lafayette with River Ranch, says he hopes to see Lafayette get more serious about smart growth. City-parish government has been talking for more than a year about adopting a smart code ' a permitting process that would make it easier for developers to do more high-density traditional neighborhood developments (Daigle had to get more than 200 permitting variances approved in developing River Ranch.)

Beyond adopting a smart code, Daigle says Lafayette needs to look at parish-wide zoning ordinances, such as those in use in Lincoln, Neb., that can help prevent costly sprawl.

"The biggest problem out there to me in the development industry," he says, "is suburban sprawl. We're developing further and further away from the hub of the municipalities [in Lafayette Parish] on larger and larger pieces of property. And the bottom line is, that type of growth taxes the ability of a municipality to provide necessary infrastructure to these areas.

"Zoning ordinances," he adds, "when they're well thought out, they're not only a good thing, they're absolutely necessary."

Daigle adds the city should also look to provide some incentives to encourage developers to do infill development in the city. In Lincoln, these types of incentives often come in the form of Tax Increment Financing districts. The TIF districts are formed when the city reaches an agreement with a developer and is able to bond out future property tax revenue from that development to pay up front for related road and other infrastructure improvements. Downtown Lincoln alone has approximately 15 TIF districts.

With Louisiana's property taxes so much lower than Nebraska's, that type of financing would be difficult to accomplish here. However, Daigle says Lafayette should try and get creative and perhaps come up with breaks on permitting fees or utility rates to encourage more city infill from developers.

Barras notes that the planning commission now has several committees exploring options ranging from a restrictive parish-wide zoning code, impact fees on developers and builders to help cover infrastructure costs, and incentives for building within the city's existing infrastructure. The commission is also trying to move forward with a comprehensive plan for the parish ' which solicits input from all residents ' to try and coordinate this infill around existing neighborhoods.

Barras hopes all these initiatives will move forward quickly.

Other areas in Acadiana are already proceeding with similar smart growth planning. St. Martin Parish has had parish-wide zoning for several years, and Iberia Parish is now moving toward implementing it. The city of New Iberia is also studying smart code, and the city of Abbeville, in Vermilion Parish, has already adopted its smart code.

Durel is anxious to get a smart code on the books for Lafayette and expects that to be accomplished this year. However, he doesn't see the political and public support for restrictive zoning ordinances, especially in the unincorporated areas outside the city. "I don't see [parish-wide zoning] happening realistically," he says. "It's probably not even worth talking about."

So he's focusing his attention on dangling financial carrots for builders. "The thing that attracts me is, how do you give people incentives to do infill?" he says. "Right now it's just cheaper to build stuff in the unincorporated areas initially. But people pay for it eventually. So we've got to find some ways," he continues, "not necessarily to penalize people but to incentivise people to get them to do more infill."

Durel would not elaborate on what types of incentives he's exploring.

Planning Commissioner Barras says that he has already talked to Durel and a few city-parish councilmen about making another trip to Lincoln this year ' a trip that could happen as early as this summer. Barras hopes it will have the effect on Durel that it had on the local officials who visited Lincoln in 2006. For planning director Hollier, the trip was revelatory. "I've been working in this business for 20 years," he says, "and I'm convinced that [smart growth] is the solution. I see the light and this is it.

"It's one of the things we're going to have to do," he continues. "There's not going to be a debate. It's just to what degree is it going to be applied, that's the question. I don't think that the resources, the revenues, are out there to do it the way we've been doing it for the past 50 years ' that's what generally comes out of smart growth. A lot of people and a lot of committees are studying these issues and trying to find solutions. I think 2007 may be a very historic year. Can hard decisions be made? I don't know. I sure hope so."