City Councilwoman Susan Guidry told the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization (MCNO) this week that she supports keeping the bayou open to anyone, charging fees only for events that would make some exclusive use of it. Members of the Greener Bayou St. John Coalition, however, continue to advocate for stronger management of events to protect the neighborhoods surrounding the waterway.
As the bayou's ecological resurgence has resulted in a recreational renaissance, festivals like Bayou Boogaloo and the annual July Fourth Boat Parade have increased in popularity, drawing thousands of attendants to the bayou each year. Recreational use of the bayou also has increased as volleyball players, boaters, runners and cyclists flock to the waterway's green banks and waters.
In the past several months, debate has sparked as neighborhood organizations, residents and New Orleans City Council members all try to sort out problems that come with increased use of the bayou. Issues range from boats being docked on the banks indefinitely to the fairness of the bayou's exclusive use for festivals.
In the most recent update, Guidry said last week that festivals should be charged for using Bayou St. John – but, given that not all festivals are equal, not every festival should be charged the same price.
"It's exciting, and it's wonderful and it's vibrant and it's what New Orleans is about," Guidry said in a public statement supporting the bayou's increased use delivered at that MCNO meeting. "I love people all over the bayou. It's absolutely wonderful. It is a public land, just like a park and just like a playground, and it's open for everyone to use."
The bayou should be used like a park is used, she said, as long as those who are using it for events such as festivals are paying a fair price. In January, Guidry announced that for the first time the city would charge for "exclusive use" of Bayou St. John.
"New Orleans has given away too much for too long," Guidry said, quoting Mayor Mitch Landrieu's inaugural speech four years ago. "The fact of the matter is, it's the state constitution that mandates that we charge for any use of public land. And the bayou is for everybody."
At the MCNO meeting, Guidry said she is working with the mayor to fine-tune the process of charging festivals for using the bayou. She specifically mentioned Bayou Boogaloo, which she says shouldn't be charged as much as other festivals because of the restoration work the festival's foundation does for the green space.
In 2013, Bayou Boogaloo raised more than $30,000 to support the "Restore The Bayou Canopy Campaign," a project to restore oak trees damaged by Hurricane Isaac. That year, the nonprofit that oversees Bayou Boogaloo, the MotherShip Foundation, planted eight live oak trees along Bayou St. John, according to its website.
Boogaloo organizer Jared Zeller previously said the city might charge him as much as $10,000 to keep the festival on the bayou.
"You've got to consider in-kind contribution of the festival when you determine what the cost should be," Guidry said.
Not everyone shares Guidry's sentiments regarding how many festivals should be allowed, the method of charging them or the frequency of events. Increased use has sparked controversy over whether the bayou's banks and waterway have been damaged by increased traffic.
A group of representatives from neighborhood organizations met in December 2013 to form the Greener Bayou St. John Coalition, which will formulate a Bayou St. John Master Plan to suggest how the bayou should be used, when it should be used and what should be done to protect it. The group will present that document to the City Council. Musa Eubanks, a coalition representative, says a master plan is needed "because the health of the bayou's waters is inextricably linked with that of its banks."
The first step was to organize two working groups, which would write separate drafts for "Uses of the Bayou" and "Health of the Bayou," and have the groups meet at the end of January. That meeting didn't take place, according to members of the MCNO. The Greener Bayou St. John Coalition, however, put new information on its website clarifying its position on several points following the publication of an article last month in Gambit ("Controlling Bayou St. John," News + Views, Jan. 14).
Coalition members disagree with Guidry that the bayou should be used like a park.
"It has been suggested by some city officials that the banks of Bayou St. John be treated like any other playground or public park and that anyone wanting to have exclusive use of the banks, such as for a festival, should 'pay a fair value to lease the area,'" a statement on the website read. "The coalition's position is that we are not sure that this is the best way to manage events on the banks of Bayou St. John. It may be better for the city to regulate the number of events and to ensure that these events do no harm to the bayou's ecosystem, to its scenic vista or to the essential character of the surrounding neighborhoods."
But not everyone thinks further regulations are a good idea. For instance, the possibility of being charged a festival fee was a deterrent for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a local nonprofit that organizes an annual New Orleans Earth Day Festival & Green Business Expo. That festival had been held on Bayou St. John previously, but will move to Louis Armstrong Park this year, according to EvanMarie Allison, the brigade's event and rapid response coordinator.
"We really enjoyed being on the bayou. It was a beautiful location," Allison said, adding the organization would have stayed if it could afford it. The city wanted to charge about $8,000 to use Bayou St. John, Allison said, while the charge for Armstrong Park is about $1,500 a day.
Small business owners like Mid-City Volleyball Group (MCVG) President Peter Hickman, who also organizes Mid-City Youth Volleyball (MCYV), have questioned regulations about use of the bayou and the relevance of the Greener Bayou St. John Master Plan since the bayou already has zoning requirements that define its use. The City Planning Commission has given the bayou an "Parkland/Recreation/Open Space" designation, which applies to parks, playgrounds, neutral grounds, waterfront areas and more. If the master plan is necessary, the volleyball organizations feel "it should not be too restrictive but rather appeal broadly to the public," Hickman says,
"For example, MCVG/MCYV uses the space occasionally for volleyball ... but it is also used for impromptu soccer games, picnics, yoga classes, walking, running and horseback riding," Hickman said. "These forms of healthy recreation are all appropriate for this area."