Some want to claim that the only thing preventing us from fixing our flooding issues is a shift in priorities. But the reality is that the parish can’t afford to fix its drainage system without more revenue.
An impassioned appeal failed to stop a controversial car dealership project in a flood-prone neighborhood
▸ The gist: Residents in a neighborhood hard hit in the 2016 floods appealed the approval of plats for a new car dealership parking lot that cuts deep into a mostly residential area. Despite an emotional plea, the City-Parish Council denied the appeal.
▸ A little background: The site in question was rezoned in January, on recommendation of the city’s planning department, from agricultural to commercial heavy to allow the project to go forward. Tuesday’s appeal targeted approval of the project’s preliminary and final plats. Exasperated, residents of the Canberra neighborhood described the long shot appeal as their last stand.
▸ What’s the big deal? Canberra residents report that stormwaters have risen in the last decade or so due to rapid development, in particular several car dealerships that have popped up along south Johnston Street and South City Parkway. The primary concern is that a new parking lot — reportedly seven acres of new concrete — will overmatch the area’s drainage coulee, which residents say can’t handle any more runoff. It is odd that the development got the green light given the widespread recognition of the relationship between expanding concrete and Lafayette’s drainage problems. Beyond drainage, they say the lot will be a nuisance, an eyesore and will tank property values. “Will you buy my house?” a resident shouted at the council from the back row.
▸ A stunning silence: After hearing testimony from enraged residents for an hour, the council sat in a loud silence. A vote requires a motion, and reluctance to make one in the face of seething anger settled on the councilmen. Councilman William Theriot awkwardly broke the spell, set the vote in motion and cast the only vote in support of the appeal. Residents applauded him and castigated Liz Hebert, their district representative.
▸ What to watch for: This still isn’t quite over. Developer Fabre Realty will next produce a drainage impact analysis to be approved by the city. A wrinkle in this story is that the developer faces new drainage regulations that require the lot to reduce runoff rate in the area by 15 percent of the pre-development rate, not an easy feat for seven acres of concrete. Earlier this year, the developer told The Advocate that he didn’t yet know how much it would cost to comply with the new drainage regs. The lot represents a test of the city’s regulatory approach to solving the ongoing drainage crisis.
The gist: The governor created a statewide office to spearhead watershed management called the Council on Watershed Management. He signed an executive order creating the council at a meeting of the Acadiana Planning Commission, which he touted as an example of regional coordination in water management.
Coordination is the new black. There’s a growing recognition among policy makers that flood and stormwater management can’t be handled at the local level. Water has a tendency to go wherever it wants, flaunting city and parish boundaries. The state council will, ostensibly, follow a model of cross-jurisdictional coordination similar to that employed by APC.
APC took a regional partnership approach in administering a $25 million FEMA grant awarded to the Acadiana region in the wake of the 2016 floods.
Dredge the Vermilion. Dredge up conflict. The governor’s announcement paralleled news that Congress has authorized the dredging of the Vermilion River. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has requested emergency funding to speed along federal revenue that otherwise could take years to materialize.
Dredging the Vermilion is precisely the sort of project that could rile up division among neighboring jurisdictions. Homeowners and elected officials in Lafayette have clamored for the river to be dredged, arguing that a shallow riverbed worsened the floods of 2016. Combined with Lafayette Consolidated Government’s drainage maintenance program, dredging would tend to move more water downstream faster.
“The Vermilion River, to me, is at capacity,” Vermilion Parish President Kevin Sagrera told The Advocate. “When the water comes down, it’s got to come over the banks and go out into residential areas.”
Study first. Do no harm. That should be the more important lesson learned from APC’s approach. If anything, you could criticize the Acadiana effort for being too conservative. Most of the projects are retention and detention ponds that hold water rather than move it around.
Before further work is done, APC has moved to study watershed impact first.
“I’d like to have the science before we do anything else, so we know what we’re doing,” APC CEO Monique Boulet told me.
The commission has prioritized a plan to deploy 230 gauges across regional waterways. Just weeks ago, UL Lafayette created a flood research center. Researchers with the center helped develop APC’s gauge deployment strategy.