VCPORA Analyzes Ramsey's Proposed Changes To The CZO

VCPORA graphic showing potential sonic footprints of French Quarter bars, restaurants and nightclubs with open doors and windows and/ or entertainment in courtyards if NMR – 17 is passed. The circles have radii of 200’, reflecting the distance that acoustician David Woolworth estimates sound travels before attenuating 20 dBs. (Bass sounds only attenuate 13 dBs in the same distance.) In other words, if the decibel level at the source is 90 dBs, at 200 feet away, it will be 70 dBs.

NEW ORLEANS – The Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates (VCPORA) reached out to supporters via email newsletter to analyze New Orleans Councilmember Nadine Ramsey’s amendments to the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance (CZO).

         The group said Ramsey introduced a package of amendments to the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance the same day, Thursday, May 14, 2015, the CZO itself was up for a vote by the City Council. 

         VCPORA alleges the last-minute timing of the introduction did not allow the public the chance to read and digest, or make fully-informed comments on the proposed amendments.

         The advocacy group said they, along with many other citizens, organizations and land use and zoning experts, have now had a chance to carefully review and research the “technically-worded” amendments and wanted to provide a plain-language analysis, along with the implications not just for the French Quarter, but for the entire city. 

         VCPORA said these changes, that may be voted on by the City Council on Thursday, August 20, are not limited to the French Quarter and would change the land use rules for bars, restaurants and nightclubs citywide.

 

VCPORA’S ANALYSIS OF PROPOSED AMENDMENTS TO THE COMPREHENSIVE ZONING ORDINANCE

 

In the French Quarter, these amendments would:

 

• Allow entertainment outdoors in courtyards

• Allow the creation of numerous new entertainment venues and of a new de facto entertainment zone along the riverfront

 

Citywide, these amendments would:

 

• Remove requirements for alcoholic beverage outlet (ABO) applicants to provide noise, security and operations plans

• Remove requirements for ABO applicants to disclose proximity of churches, schools and playgrounds

• Lift limitations on "holding bars" which would make it easier for restaurants to morph into bars

• Remove the requirement that entertainment venues keep their doors and windows closed during performances to contain noise overflow

• Allow all standard restaurants to become package liquor stores

 

         VCPORA said a cursory read of these amendments reveals several individual problems. But when taken together, they said it is clear that the cumulative effect would drastically alter the delicate balance of businesses coexisting within New Orleans neighborhoods by allowing the proliferation and expansion of alcoholic beverage outlets and entertainment venues without adequate public input or review.

 

NOTE: The amendments are titled according to their author’s initials; hence, Ramsey’s amendments are NMR followed by a number.

 

NMR – 14

French Quarter-only

 

Would allow live entertainment in all restaurants in the French Quarter.

 

         In the new CZO, "musical accompaniment" is allowed in restaurants citywide with the exception of the French Quarter. The rationale for that exemption was the fact that the Quarter already has the highest concentration of entertainment venues in the entire city. Combined with the fact that there are many other uses in the French Quarter neighborhood, business and well as residential, the CZO’s new regulations are an acknowledgement that further expansion of entertainment venues could harm the delicate balance that is part of the value and appeal of the Vieux Carré. As the City Planning staff noted in their report, "Given the amount of existing live entertainment in the French Quarter and the potential conflict with nearby residents, the staff does not support permitting musical accompaniment at restaurants in all Vieux Carré districts."

 

NMR –17 (Section VII)

French Quarter-only

 

Would allow live and recorded entertainment in French Quarter courtyards.

 

         Currently, entertainment is prohibited in Quarter courtyards. The reason is simple: these open-air areas by their nature offer no means of containing sound. Given the built environment of the French Quarter, with buildings sharing walls and commercial and residential uses often abutting each other, allowing sound in courtyards would mean adjoining uses would receive that sound, whether they liked it or not. It could also lead to "sound wars" between neighboring venues who are trying to drown out the entertainment from the courtyard next door. No studies have been done to assess the impact of this proposed change, or to the potential detrimental impact to neighboring owners and occupants, who must often share multiple common walls. Furthermore, the wording of the amendment would allow entertainment venues to pop up in nearly every zoning district in the Quarter, whereas entertainment is currently allowed only in the VCE districts (parts of Bourbon Street and the area around House of Blues). Allowing entertainment in courtyards would be catastrophic for the French Quarter, leading to a mass exodus not just of residents but of many businesses. The economic impacts would be felt across the city.

 

NMR – 16

CITYWIDE

 

Would change the definition of "restaurant, standard."

 

         Currently, sales of alcohol at restaurants must be incidental to sales of food. That means you have to be selling food while you’re offering alcohol. The proposed amendment would do away with this language and use only the standard of 50% +1 of sales coming from food. That may sound like a minor distinction, but imagine a restaurant that does a bustling lunch business, and then closes the kitchen in the evening and operates as a bar. Without the "incidental" language, there would be nothing to prevent that from happening.

 

NMR – 17 Part – VII Art. 20, Sec. 20.3G 1

CITYWIDE

 

Would delete requirements for ABO applicants to provide noise, security and operations plans.

Would delete requirements for ABO applicants to disclose proximity of churches, schools and playgrounds.

 

         Two of the most common complaints about ABOs have to do with noise and safety. Recognizing these potential negative impacts on surrounding land uses, the new CZO seeks to head off problems by requiring such establishments to provide written plans for security and operations, as well as noise abatement. Part of NMR-17 would delete these reasonable and neighborhood-friendly requirements.

         Another portion of NMR-17 would delete the following language: "Bars shall submit a summary of the number and location of places of worship, educational facilities, and parks and playgrounds within three hundred feet of the proposed locations." The impact of that deletion would be far-reaching. The language in the new CZO is written to preempt or mitigate the possible detrimental effect and impact of alcoholic beverage outlets (bars, package liquor stores, entertainment venues) on churches, schools, parks and playgrounds. As has been the rule in the previous CZO, the new CZO makes it the responsibility of the applicant to supply information on such uses within 300’ of the proposed ABO. NMR-17 would shift that burden to city staffers, which would stretch CPC staff further, and more importantly, shift the liability for errors from the applicant to the city.

 

NMR – 17 Part 6 (VII 20.3.ZZ .6)

CITYWIDE

 

Would remove the maximum square footage requirement for holding bars.

 

         Currently, there are two means of ensuring that restaurants don’t morph into bars. The first is that over 50%+1 of the revenue must come from food. The second puts a square footage limit on the size of holding bars (small bars in restaurants that "hold" patrons waiting to be seated), and allows their operation only when the kitchen is open. The size of holding bars under the old and new CZO are capped at 15% of the floor area of the public seating area, and an overall limit of 300 sq. ft. NMR-17 would delete the size limit on holding bars entirely. The City Planning Commission staff, in its analysis, calls this a "loophole" and says, "The staff believes that without a concrete standard in which to differentiate bars and restaurants, a loophole exists for restaurants to morph into bars."

         In conjunction with NMR-16, which changes the definition of restaurants so that liquor service is not tied to food service, this amendment would greatly increase the potential for restaurants to operate as bars.

 

NMR – 17 20.3.ZZ.4

CITYWIDE

 

Would allow entertainment venues to leave doors and windows open during performances.

 

         There are many examples of entertainment venues coexisting peacefully with neighbors. In almost every case, these venues ensure that sound stays inside. The CZO codifies this "good neighbor" policy by requiring that any venue offering entertainment must have its doors and windows closed during performances. This is particularly important considering that under the new CZO, restaurants citywide* will be able to offer "musical accompaniment." The rule now becomes important not just for existing live entertainment venues, but for many restaurants as well. NMR-17 would delete the closed-door-and-window policy, which would remove an important protection for the balance of residential and commercial use in New Orleans neighborhoods. City Planning staff objected, noting that "deleting this requirement would allow for any live entertainment venue to have its doors and windows open to the street which could impact adjacent uses."

 

*with the exception of the French Quarter, although that exception would be deleted if NMR-14 is passed.

 

NMR – 12 Art. 20.3ZZ.5

CITYWIDE

 

Would allow standard restaurants to sell package liquor.

 

         Currently, package liquor sales are limited to certain zoning districts and are highly regulated because of the often-negative impacts that these outlets can have on surrounding areas. This amendment would allow every standard restaurant in New Orleans to become a package liquor outlet. The wording is as follows: "restaurant, standard, which may sell alcoholic beverages for consumption on premises or which may sell alcoholic beverages for consumption off-premises when sold in conjunction with meals to go." However, there is no definition or standards for "in conjunction with meals to go." In the past, the city and the courts have interpreted the zoning code broadly, which could allow any restaurant that offers take-out food to sell packaged liquor to anyone. The lack of clarity in this amendment extends to the question of enforcement, which already bedevils neighbors, neighborhood groups, and governmental agencies seeking to reign in problem ABOs.

         The City Planning Commission staff recommended against this amendment, saying that "the sale of alcoholic beverages at restaurants in conjunction with meals to go is regulated by Chapter 10 of the City Code. The Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance should not imply that something is allowed that might be in conflict with City Code."

 

         For more information

 

 

 

 

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