Elevation waiver focus of debate

Start of construction of Rayne Guest Home expansion delayed

Construction of an $8.5 million expansion project at Rayne Guest Home is on hold while members of the city council weigh their options concerning a requested elevation waiver.
While waivers and variances are routinely granted by the city, this one could have repercussions in the form of higher flood insurance rates for citizens and possible loss of federal funding for the city, according to Cindy N. O’Neal, National Flood Insurance Program Coordinator for the state Department of Transportation and Development and NFIP liaison with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
O’Neal told members of the city council here Monday night that, as one of only 44 cities that participate in the NFIP Community Rating System, Rayne could lose “points” if the council allows construction below the ordinance-mandated elevation of 1 foot above the crown of the road.
The loss of those points, she said, would likely result in an increase in flood insurance premiums for local residents.
Not only that, but the action could spark a citywide “audit” of NFIP compliance, she said, adding that “if enough violations are found, the city can be penalized or dropped from the program.”
Federal funding from FEMA also could be jeopardized, according to O’Neal.
“Variance is a dirty work in our offices,” she said. “I strongly encourage you to look seriously at this before making a decision.”
Owners of RGH, through their architect, Keith Broussard, had requested a variance to the city’s Code of Ordinances requiring construction in “Zone X” be built 1 foot above the crown of the street — in this case, Robert Street.
Broussard explained to the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission in late September that the floor of the existing portion of the Guest Home is about 2 inches above the crown and that raising the 46,000-square-foot expansion an additional 10 inches “would be problematic” for residents.
The commission and Broussard had seemingly reached a compromise at that meeting when Mark Daigle, Rayne’s Flood Plain Manager, said he “could live with” the expansion elevation at 10 inches above the crown of Robert Street — or 8 inches above the floor of the current facility.
But RGH owners quashed that idea, citing safety concerns for the less-ambulatory residents because of the inclines that would be necessary to join the two facilities.
“Sloped connections increase the likelihood of trips and falls, which increase the risks of breaks and, in some instances, deaths,” Broussard told the council Monday night. “There is a much higher daily risk of trips associated with inclines compared to a less-than-1-percent chance of flooding every 100 years.”
Karen Cook, a Registered Nurse and one of the owners of Rayne Guest Home, concurred.
“From a nursing standpoint, any incline is dangerous,” she said. “I’m the person that was the most adamant (about no inclines). My main concern is the safety of our patients.”
Ricky Bonin, Rayne Guest Home administrator, said he had recently visited a nursing home where 1-on-30 inclines — 1 foot in elevation to 30 feet in length, the same ratio that would be used at RGH with the 8-inch elevation difference — were used and “most of the residents had a very difficult time” traversing them.
“We would have about 80 people traversing that slope every day to get to the cafeteria,” Bonin said.
However, that would have little influence with NFIP, according to O’Neal.
“The Americans with Disabilities Act does not overrule NFIP,” she said. “Maybe this isn’t the right location.”
To which Bonin replied, “That’s a possibility.”
Back in May when Bonin presented the expansion plans to members of the council, he said the plans would both meet the goals set by the Guest Home’s board of directors in 2009 to improve the quality of life for residents and keep the facility in the city limits.
Bonin said three options were examined by the board: remodeling the existing facility, expand the existing facility or move to a new location north of Interstate 10, outside the city’s corporate limits.
Though there were a number of incentives to moving the facility — discount on insurance premiums, no city property tax, cheaper utilities, no forced evacuation in the event of a hurricane — he said the decision was made to remain at its present site.
Council members voted to table the matter for two weeks.
“I have a lot a questions I need answers to before I can make a decision,” said Councilman Jimmy Fontenot.
The council will meet in special session at 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 24, to make a decision.

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