A group of Highland Road and Pecue Lane residents worry that future subdivisions and developments with small lots will ruin their tree-lined neighborhoods and add more traffic to their already jammed roads.
The residents, known as the Protect Highland Road Task Force, are pushing to rezone most of the land on Highland Road from Siegen Lane to Interstate 10, and on Pecue Lane between Perkins Road and Highland Road. Instead of the seven homes per acre now allowed, residents want no more than one home per acre, which would block many future developments in the area.
The debate has raised several questions about the rights of property owners and the scope of local government’s role in rezoning land without permission from the property owners.
The movement has been building, with residents saying this is the only way to ensure Highland Road will still be the charming, tree-topped neighborhood in 20 years that it is today.
“You guys know how beautiful this area is and how we’re losing these beautiful areas of Baton Rouge,” said Joe Territo, a Pecue Lane resident, as the group asked the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council on Wednesday to support a study on its rezoning request.
The Metro Council did not appear sympathetic to the residents’ plight at its meeting last week. Council members asked pointed questions about doing a blanket rezoning of property without permission of all landowners involved.
The council deferred taking action on Wednesday and is expected to take up the matter again in a few weeks.
The quest to rezone such a large area will be a lengthy, uphill battle. Residents say it already has been, in some ways.
The rules for property zoned as rural — as these neighborhoods are — have changed over time. In the 1990s, the definition was changed to allow seven homes per acre instead of the previous standard of one home per acre.
This proved to be a problem for some residents some months ago. They hired traffic engineers and attorneys to block a subdivision called Heritage Oaks that would have been a high-density development at the intersection of Highland Road and Pecue Lane.
The residents asked how they could avoid going through such headaches in the future, and city officials said the only real option would be to rezone the property.
Not every property’s zoning would change under their proposal — some, especially commercial areas, would be grandfathered in.
Charles Perilloux, one of the residents spearheading the rezoning push, said the group started a petition and began collecting names of people who agreed that their property and entire neighborhood should be rezoned. He said 252 properties would be eligible for rezoning and that they have collected 216 “yes” signatures for the planning staff to verify.
But the city-parish Planning Director Frank Duke said the group doesn’t have enough support yet.
“Based on the signatures they’ve given us, they have well less than half the support,” Duke said.
He said he is working on a preliminary assessment of whether the proposed rezoning is a good or bad idea. He said he’s looking at four factors to make up his mind:
- Are the changes consistent with the Future BR land-use plan?
- Would the change conform with development regulations?
- Is the change consistent with the area’s overall development pattern?
- How supportive of the change are the affected property owners?
Asked where Duke stands on the zoning changes, he said, “I’m Switzerland.”
He said he also will consider whether it makes more sense to rezone part of the area rather than the whole stretch, as proposed.
“For the overall large area, my gut reaction is no, it doesn’t make sense,” Duke said. “I don’t think they have demonstrated adequate support from all of the property owners.”
He also said he will caution the Metro Council that complaints from property owners are not reason enough to rezone an area.
“You just don’t mess with people’s property rights that way,” Duke said. “But if there’s a real public interest, then it’s absolutely appropriate for the Metro Council to step in.”
Developers have been some of the most vocal critics of the rezoning push thus far.
Real estate developer Brian Dantin told the council that the historic value of Highland Road and the size of future lots should not be related to each other. Dantin is planning a Highland Road development that would put 20 lots on 15 acres.
“Historic and 1-acre lots, in my opinion, don’t mean the same thing,” Dantin said.
Larry Bankston, director of the Baton Rouge Growth Coalition, told the Metro Council that his group does not take positions on zoning matters but that he wants the process to play out without taking shortcuts. He said it’s imperative that homeowners be notified if it’s possible that their land would be rezoned.
Perilloux said his group has attempted to reach out to all the property owners involved. Robert Rieger, who lives in Highland Lakes and is also backing the rezoning, said the Highland and Pecue residents should not be considered anti-development.
“We’re all in the development business ourselves,” he said. “But we think development has to be tempered.”
An added complication is the fallout from the Metro Council’s vote in August to rezone property and block an industrial barge-cleaning facility from moving into the south part of Baton Rouge. Complaints about the facility planned by Tubal-Cain Marine Services triggered the Metro Council to vote 9-2 to rezone the land from heavy industrial to commercial.
But the two Metro Council members who voted against the rezoning worried then about how the vote could affect future zoning fights in the city-parish.
“It came down to one basic fact: property rights,” said Councilman Joel Boé at the time, who voted against it. “It sets a bad precedent that a governmental body can come in and change property zoning without the owner’s approval.”
Ryan Heck, who also voted against the rezoning, has pushed for rule changes that would require the Metro Council to have a unanimous or a supermajority vote when rezoning land without the property owner’s consent.
Right now, the council only needs a majority of seven votes to rezone.
“Some, including us, would consider that a very bad government practice in almost all situations, whether it was zoning or taxes,” Perilloux said of requiring an increased number of votes on the council to pass such issues.
In the meantime, Duke said Dantin’s development should not be affected by the rezoning push, if it goes through. Dantin’s development is slated to go to the Planning Commission in December, but Duke said the commission would not be able to take up the rezoning matter before the new year.