NEW ORLEANS (AP) - New Orleans tour bus operators wanting to take visitors into the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood may soon have to pay a fee to do so.
After a meeting this month with tour operators and residents, City Councilman Ernest Charbonnet, who represents the Lower 9th Ward, has drafted an ordinance with a yet-to-be-determined fee for companies proposing to provide for-pay tours of the Hurricane Katrina-devastated neighborhood.
Charbonnet said the proposed ordinance, which may be brought to the full City Council as early as Nov. 1, also would limit the size of buses to 28-passenger vehicles or smaller and limits all tour buses to an established route that steers clear of most residential streets.
Charbonnet said he's still working to determine how much the fee should be and how it would be implemented, but money generated would pay for grass-cutting where homes were pushed off their foundations when floodwalls gave way during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Blocks of the neighborhood are overgrown with weeds.
"The grass is a big problem," Charbonnet said. "It's not just unsightly, it's a health hazard."
Some tour operators argue the fee, if imposed, could hurt a business that is bringing them and the city tourist dollars and open them to possibly more fees from other parts of the rebuilding city.
"It's a very slippery slope," said Isabelle Cossart, a New Orleans tour operator since 1979 who was among those at the Oct. 5 meeting. "Will we have to pay the Upper 9th Ward? The Marigny? Gentilly? Treme? It's risky, and it's opening the door to problems for us."
Currently, there is a city ordinance in place that bans all tour buses from the Lower 9th Ward. That ordinance was passed in 2006 to keep the tour buses and vans from interfering with clean-up efforts but was loosely enforced until recently, when some residents complained the tour vehicles were blocking streets and damaging the roads. Residents also were weary of being gawked at.
Cossart said if the ordinance is passed she is considering nixing the Lower 9th from her tours since visitors have been pleased with the tour she provides to such areas as Treme and Hollygrove.
"There are many other places we can bring focus to," she said. "There is so much destruction, thousands of homes that need repair. In Hollygrove, it's unbelievable. You can still see water lines."
David Lee Ducote, owner of Southern Style Tours, said he stopped giving tours of the Lower 9th when one of his drivers was ticketed recently. He said he takes visitors elsewhere in the rebuilding city, including to the Musicians Village, a post-Katrina effort launched near the Lower 9th Ward by entertainers Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis.