Preparedness & Recovery

2016 Floods Cause Baton Rouge Residents, Officials to Consider Planting More Trees, Greenery

Developers in East Baton Rouge can try to mitigate flood risk by including features like retention ponds, but groups like the Center for Planning Excellence say that adding more green spaces with water-sopping vegetation could also help.

by Steve Hardy, The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. / December 28, 2017

(TNS) - South Louisianians have been especially mindful of late of their leafy neighbors: the sycamores, cypresses, live oaks and sweet gums that lend their shade and literally hold the community together.

Their importance was underscored after the 2016 flood as local leaders and environmentalists looked to trees and other flora to help anchor the ground against erosion and soak up excessive rain.

Conservationists are leading expeditions into wetlands to replenish mangrove stocks, and the East Baton Rouge Planning Commission has recently discussed how far they can go to defend live oaks from being destroyed by developers.

Developers in East Baton Rouge can try to mitigate flood risk by including features like retention ponds, but groups like the Center for Planning Excellence say that adding more green spaces with water-sopping vegetation could also help.

The city-parish doesn't have any rules on using flora for flood control, said city-parish planning manager Vance Baldwin, but greenery could play a bigger role in soaking up water and even chemicals such as oil that runs off a parking lot.

Baldwin expects the mayor's storm water master plan — parts of which are expected to be completed as early as the spring — will help lay out how trees, bushes and rain gardens can best be employed.

It’s something that will be explored when planning staff sets about revising the local floodplain ordinance in the coming months.

The city-parish drew up its first landscape ordinance in the mid-1990s and overhauled it last year, Baldwin said.

Developers had been able to get points for every tree they planted at commercial sites, apartment complexes and subdivisions, but the rules let them stuff plants in back areas that would never be developed. The new guidelines from last year’s overhaul of the ordinance emphasized planting where they can be seen from the street and provide a buffer, he said.

The rules also make sure that trees also now have enough space to grow, so a business owner can't just plant one on a tiny island in a parking lot where it can't mature properly. Larger trees are intended to help combat the urban heat island effect, a phenomenon in which cities are warmer than undeveloped areas due to heat-trapping construction material, Baldwin said.

On a smaller scale, they also provide shade, which is important to leaders who want to encourage residents to bike and walk wherever possible in a car-heavy city.

"It's hard to get people to walk in the blazing sun or the rain when there's no cover," Baldwin said.

One public project intended to provide more lush paths is the Downtown Greenway, a connection of parks and walkways that will eventually connect the riverfront to City Park, Memorial Park and Arsenal Park. Some routes along the Mississippi and the tree-lined North Boulevard Promenade are in place already, with more planned.

The Downtown Development District is also looking to develop a 20-acre conservation area near the corner of River Road and North Boulevard, said director Davis Rhorer.

The site has pits that have filled in with water and now provide a habitat for herons, egrets and the occasional pelican. Rhorer wants to add in some trails where downtown denizens can "escape from the city" for a walk.

Downtown, planners are less concerned with erosion control than providing shade and beauty. Rhorer said his agency has sought to seed downtown with a "riverine pallet" of plant life and a live oak theme. They're also considering hanging some Spanish moss on the trees outside the State Capitol.

"It certainly would be an appropriate display of Louisiana — cypress trees with moss on them," he said.

Of course, when residents have a question about plants on private property, they get directed to someone like Greg Bivin, the East Baton Route Department of Development's urban forestry and landscape manager. Most of his job involves reviewing plans and making sure developers are following the code, such as ensuring that at least ten percent of new commercial development is green space. But Bivin occasionally is called on to mediate disputes between neighbors.

He has to tell residents that they can't cut their neighbors' trees, even if they lean over the property line. However, most times the two sides can work out an agreement, especially when Bivin tells them the tree owner could be liable for damage from a fallen branch.

That's also why the city-parish has to trim dead trees in the right of way and limbs that lean over parking spaces and private property, Bivin continued.

However, except for some restrictions on historical sites, private property owners are largely free to manage their own plants as they see fit.

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