Cover Story

Arrested Development

by Mary Tutwiler

An aspiring architect and his home town square off over a ditch neither one will cross. Photos by Robin May Stephen Ortego has worn many hats in his brief 25 years. Intern architect for Brad Pitt's Make It Right foundation to help rebuild New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward. Political candidate for District 39 state representative. Owner of a start-up translation company that helps create bilingual materials for Louisiana businesses. Developer of a subdivision dedicated to environmentally sound houses and best environmental land use practices.

Although Ortego only worked for Make It Right for three months on the first six houses of a planned 150 house project (the national economic crisis slowed building) and he lost his bid for office, his adventure in developing a small four-house subdivision within Carencro city limits has by far been his most frustrating enterprise.

A graduate of Carencro High and the Tulane University School of Architecture, Ortego came home to Carencro from the Crescent City in 2007 with stars in his eyes. "I wanted to use the knowledge I had just learned on Make It Right, plus my architectural skill I'd learned at school. I decided I wanted to go back to my home town and show people what's the new thing, and what's the way to go as far as building, both for durability and for energy efficiency, water efficiency, everything," he says.

He began looking for a lot large enough to subdivide within walking distance of Carencro's town center. Ortego's goal was to meet the highest standards in environmentally sustainable architecture. Dubbed Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System, LEED is a third-party certification program and the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high performance green buildings. LEED is the yardstick used by the internationally acclaimed Make It Right architects as well as UL's Beausoleil Home team. Last month, the Beausoleil design brought home from the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon in Washington, D.C, both the People's Choice and Market Viability awards. Ortego's intention was to build the first LEED Platinum-Certified houses, commercially available, in Acadiana.

Carencro City Manager Lloyd Rochon recalls his first encounter with Ortego. "I knew Stephen was going to have different ideas when he first came into City Hall. This is what he told me, You know I'm going to put up some houses like Brad Pitt put up in New Orleans.'"

Adds Carencro Mayor Glenn Brasseaux, "every other sentence was Brad Pitt."

Rochon continues, "I told him, Stephen, you're not Brad Pitt and this ain't New Orleans. We have our own rules and regulations here that are totally different from New Orleans. We're gonna work with you and try to get done what you need to get done, but it may be a little different from New Orleans.'"

Ortego began a campaign to educate the mayor, Rochon and ultimately the Carencro City Council, which serves as the town's de facto planning commission. He says he was struggling to communicate his ideas about building energy efficient houses in the heart of the old downtown with small footprints on small lots - habitation for a small planet with limited resources.

"It's very progressive thinking," says Brasseaux. "He presented what the walls were made of and all that. I thought it was a great idea. Me, personally, the house is too small, but if it works for people that's fine. If I were going to pay that type of money, I'd want a larger house; I'd want more bang for my buck. Of course I'm going to be 60 in two weeks, [so] I'm going to have a different mind set from a guy who's 24 and an architect, but it's America and people can build what they want."

Photo by Robin May

Ortego is a striking looking young man. Six feet tall, with black curly hair, pale skin, green eyes and an easy smile, he is friendly, outspoken and quick to engage new acquaintances in conversation about his passions: Acadiana, the French language and environmentally sustainable architecture. President of his senior class in high school and on the student senate at Tulane, Ortego was so frustrated with politics in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, that when he saw an opportunity in 2007 to run for a seat following the retirement of Clara Baudoin, the term-limited representative from District 39, he jumped. "I was close to Clara, and I knew how the system worked in the Legislature by following it for years," he says. "I thought I might as well throw my hat in the ring for state representative so that we could have a couple of voices in the state House and Senate that were of a younger generation."

Ortego's platform included a strong environmental stance. He ran against the former mayor of Carencro, Tommy Angelle; La La Lalonde, a colorful former rep; and Bobby Badon, who was on the city council in Carencro. He ended up missing the runoff by 2 percent of the vote; Badon went on beat Lalonde for the seat. "I don't know if the trouble I'm having now has anything to do with the political race," says Ortego. "It wouldn't be surprising. I think some of the people who are elected officials in that area were upset to see a young person stepping out of the ranks."

A fluid floor plan, high ceilings and lots of access to outdoors make a small space feel spacious.

Photo by Robin May

Carencro is one of five small municipalities that surround the city of Lafayette. Once thriving communities, the ubiquity of the automobile has driven consumers to the larger shopping malls of Lafayette. Small town centers have not held up well. Essential businesses such as neighborhood grocery stores expired along with the foot traffic that supported them. Lately, downtown Carencro has suffered lunchtime closure at Paul's Pirogue, one of the best restaurants in Acadiana - a defeat attributable to strip malls and fast food places that have sprung up along Carencro's service roads that access the interstate.

Part of Ortego's vision, and one of the criteria for LEED certification, is to locate your house within walking distance of community resources such as stores, government buildings and parks. Ortego began running into stumbling blocks immediately. The first piece of property he eyed, one block from the heart of town - St. Peter's Church, Paul's Pirogue and City Hall - was perfect for his intentions with one exception: According to the 1998 FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Map, the property is in a floodway, literally in a watercourse or the adjacent drainage that must be reserved to discharge floodwaters. Communities must regulate development in floodways to ensure no increases in flooding. Carencro City Planner Bonnie Anderson informed him he would need a No Rise certificate (meaning he wouldn't cause flooding upstream) in order to issue any permits for development on the tract. Ortego dropped his option and bought a half-acre property on the corner of Arceneaux and Tison roads.

The site is within Carencro city limits on the south side, but looks like it's in a transitional zone between country and town. While the houses are all single family dwellings, the neighborhood is not by any means affluent. Mayor Brasseaux doesn't understand why Ortego picked that neighborhood for his upscale development in the first place. "I don't think he's going to want to live in that neighborhood with some of these deplorable, what I'm gonna call shacks, in that area. I continue to tell him, take that little concept of those four houses on that size lot, and move it half a mile down, where it's open field, in the correct setting."

Ortego applied to subdivide the property into four parcels. He was in a hurry and demanded his application be expedited from the January 2009 meeting to the December 2008 meeting, a legal impossibility, Anderson says. The relationship between the city and Ortego began to erode.

The council met in January with Ortego's proposal on the table, which triggered a packed public hearing.

"The neighbors were up in arms," says Brasseaux.

The two issues were density and drainage.

Carencro's city government took an innovative step last year, adopting a land use ordinance rather than a zoning ordinance. The land use ordinance allows much more flexibility in locating mixed use, and there is no minimum lot size requirement. The ordinance relies on creating buffer zones between different uses rather than dictating use by zone. Ortego's small lots met the land use regulations.

The other set of regulations governing development are FEMA's flood insurance maps, which delineate flood zones. The Carencro planning department, as every governing body in Lafayette Parish, requires engineering documentation including elevation plans for building in a flood zone, along with flood elevation certificates of inspection during the course of building.

Acadiana is in the process of adopting new FEMA flood elevation maps, which will change a lot of the landscape in terms of development. The old maps, which date back to the late 1990s, are currently in use. The new draft maps that started coming out around 2005 put a lot more areas into flood zones, and every Lafayette Parish municipality, including Carencro, is appealing some of the designations before they will adopt them. However, change is coming, and the new maps, containing new information, must be taken into consideration, says Ian Trahan, an engineer in the Public Works department of Lafayette Consolidated Government who sat on the drainage board that reviewed the proposed Flood Insurance Rate Maps as they were issued. Development is no longer governed by a laissez-faire attitude in south Louisiana. "This is a new era," says Trahan, "and drainage is the big issue."

Ortego's property, on the old map Carencro adopted a dozen years ago, is not in a flood zone. On the new map, once adopted, it will be. Based on historical data, Carencro is not appealing the designation. Says Anderson, "In that neighborhood, water has gone into people's houses over the slab, as recently as 2004 and 2006."

"You can drive out there and look at that property and know that it's low," adds Brasseaux, with this caveat: "When a guy comes to build, we can't tell him, nowadays, you shouldn't build houses there. We can't tell a potential buyer, Hey, look, that's a flood prone area,' because if that affects the sale, they can sue us."

Most of the high ground in the parish has already been developed. What remains probably falls into a flood zone under the new maps, and developments built in flood zones must have drainage studies that include quantities of runoff from rooftops, square footage covered with non-permeable materials and plans to retain runoff water to keep it from causing flash flooding.

The drainage requirements for building a single house are a lot less stringent than for a subdivision, and there is no drainage requirement for a single house in a non flood zone.

Ortego maintains that his property is not in a flood zone based on the town's current FIRM maps. Anderson communicated with both FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers about Ortego's proposed development. In typical circular language, Diana Herrera, certified flood plain manager for FEMA Region 6 Mitigation Division, replied that while Carencro is not required to use the draft maps, it is encouraged to "reasonably utilize this information." That's the carrot - the stick being that FEMA also governs the nation's flood insurance.

Bonnie Anderson is one of the few certified flood plain administrators in the area. Her degree has earned Carencro a 10 percent discount on flood insurance for every home owner in the city. Granting permits to Ortego to develop in accordance with regulations in a non flood zone could jeopardize the flood insurance discount for every home owner in Carencro, she says, a chance Anderson is not willing to take.

The specific flooding in the area, aside from its elevations, is man made, exacerbated by a combination of piecemeal development, a patchwork of open ditches and decades-old corrugated metal subsurface culverts.

The public turned out, says Anderson, not because of Ortego's unconventional architectural design, but because they were concerned that the concentration of four houses replacing one would increase flooding in the area. Withstanding intense public pressure, the council granted preliminary plat approval to Ortego, with the condition that he mitigate the increased possibility of flooding from his new, four-house subdivision. The council's conditions included laying a culvert in an existing open ditch surrounding the property and building a retention pond to slow runoff before it enters Carencro's drainage system.

Ortego balked. "Once I submitted a [drainage] proposal, it went back and forth; there were six or seven months where it didn't go anywhere, and I realized it wasn't going to go anywhere until I fixed their ditch. They're trying to take their ordinance and turn it into something so that I can fix a problem that's been a problem for the city for years. And my engineer actually found out from the flood studies that no matter what I did, it wasn't going to solve any sort of flood problems, that I still was going to be tying into an undersized ditch."

Ortego says he thinks he is being targeted both for the density of his development and his architectural innovation. "Being green, redeveloping, would also be redeveloping in a way that's more dense, so that instead of building out subdivisions to nowhere, you put a more dense subdivision in a redevelopment site. It allows you to use the infrastructure that already exists, and not having to pay for new infrastructure, and accommodate the population growth at the same time.

"It also makes a lot of urban sense too, doing an infill site and rebuilding it with architecturally significant buildings. It raises property values and helps a city be able to repair itself. A lot of the older housing eventually starts to be abandoned and they end up tearing them down. You see that in a lot of the older sections of Lafayette and Carencro. It slowly starting eroding away, and you see some lots opening up that need to be redeveloped. The way the ordinances are now, I don't think it encourages redevelopment very much. It discourages people from developing infill sites. It ends up killing off the center portions of cities. I knew my houses were going to be 20 percent more expensive than a regular house, and it was going to be hard to pass on those costs to people. Unless you're building new roads and putting in at least 50 houses, you can't swallow the cost that they try to make you do."

Mayor Glenn Brasseaux and City Planner Bonnie Anderson chart flood plains when considering granting approval for new development.

Photo by Robin May

Ortego's innovative design is a far cry from the brick on slab or small frame houses in the neighborhood. Two stories tall on a thick concrete slab raising the house two feet above grade, small decks and balconies connect the inside to the outside, creating lots of ambient cooling through air flow on nice days. Structural Insulated Panels, made of steel and expanded polystyrene, are both the insulation and structure of the walls and roof, sealing outside air out and inside air in. The energy efficiency will earn Ortego one of the highest LEED ratings.

Downstairs an open plan flows kitchen, living room and dining area together in a bright airy space. The ceiling opens all the way up to the second story height in places, giving the small, 500-square-foot downstairs a feeling of expansiveness. All the appliances are Energy Star rated for efficiency, and the tankless hot water heater heats on demand, rather than maintaining unneeded hot water 24/7. Ortego found cabinet doors for the kitchen made with wheat chaff cores. Paint was designated to have no toxic chemical content; glues and caulk were strictly regulated to have no formaldehyde, a human carcinogen. As a result, the house doesn't have a "new house smell," which is really a combination of synthetic carpet, glue and paint. It smells like fresh air and sunshine. Up a spiral staircase, two bedrooms and a second bath are perched in a tree-house setting, casement windows and balcony doors swinging open into a canopy of branches. The trees provide shade and shelter from storms. Bamboo flooring is a sustainable alternative to new wood. Ortego says most days his air conditioning unit barely runs; the house controls its own mini climate. What such a house costs up front, in the $160,000 price range, will ultimately pay for itself, he says, in miniscule energy bills.

There is only one house, instead of the planned four on the lot, because Ortego chose to withdraw his subdivision request and move forward with a single house on a single lot, avoiding the drainage issue. He had hoped to move in himself, use his house as a model, pre sell the lots and houses, and complete the subdivision.

He believes the city is arbitrarily preventing him from completing his infill project, and that it is the responsibility of the city to maintain its own ditch.

Anderson retorts that everyone is treated the same: no waivers, no variances when it comes to drainage.

From the second story balcony, Ortego looks ruefully over the rest of his half-acre lot, covered with ruts, cattails and patches of grass. "I give up," he says. "I'm putting my house on the market."

Since Ortego put up a "For Sale By Owner," sign last week, he's fielded well over 20 calls; four people have already come to look at the house. His asking price is $185,000, for a highly efficient house and a half acre lot ripe for development.

It's a steal - for anyone who's willing to pipe a $35,000 ditch.