Three Central residents are suing their mayor and a handful of City Council members over a planned traditional neighborhood development that would bring 700 housing units to the small city.
The lawsuit, filed late Monday in 19th Judicial District Court, alleges that Central’s leadership violated its own ordinances to move forward with The Settlement on Shoe Creek development. The Settlement would feature a combination of apartments, cottages, town homes, retail shops and office space, and would be situated off Sullivan Road in one of Central’s most well-traveled areas.
Dissent about the development has been bubbling up for months. Michael Mannino, one of the plaintiffs along with Mark David Freneaux and Michael Stephens, said a lawsuit was the only recourse left once their concerns about the development went unanswered by elected officials.
“They didn’t really give a justification for what they’re doing,” Mannino said Tuesday. “People are just overwhelmingly against this, mainly because the impact to the school system and traffic.”
Mannino was among dozens of people who spoke against approving the development at a Central City Council meeting in late July. Despite the opposition, the council approved it.
Central Mayor Jr. Shelton hailed the development when he announced it in January to the Chamber of Commerce of East Baton Rouge. Shoecreek was meant to be similar to Lafayette’s popular Village at River Ranch development that combines upscale homes, shopping and retail.
Shelton late Tuesday night denied any wrongdoing and said the development will lead to smart growth.
Shelton and City Council members Shane Evans, Kim Fralick, John Vance and Wayne Messina all were named as defendants in the suit.
“We’ve made our position quite clear on this matter; everything that transpired was legal,” Messina said. He deferred further comment to attorneys.
Central legal counsel Jennifer Sims said the council was within its rights to move forward with the development. She noted that Shelton did not have a vote to approve the settlement.
“The city plans to vigorously defend against the baseless allegations included in the petition filed by plaintiffs, one of whom was unsuccessful in challenging Mayor Shelton in the 2014 mayoral election,” she said.
The lawsuit asks for a temporary restraining order to block progress on the development until a hearing can be held. It uses Central’s “net density calculator” for zoning to conclude that the development’s 250 apartment units are more than six times the allowable number of apartments for the development.
“The crux of the suit involves getting them to follow the ordinance and reduce the density of apartments there,” Mannino said.
The plaintiffs questioned how the development near Wax Road would affect traffic. The developers looked at property in the area for two years before they decided on the 150-acre site across from the Wal-Mart Supercenter.
“We love this site because of its ease of access onto the Central Thruway and to Hooper Road, both of which are short commutes into Baton Rouge,” developer Prescott Bailey said in January.
Shoe Creek needed at least two access points and the mayor came to an agreement with a private third party in late July to extend a private street that would be Shoe Creek’s second access point, according to the lawsuit. The private street’s designation would be changed to public.
The lawsuit argues that Shelton did not have the authority to contract with a third party to build a public street, nor does he have the authority to redesignate private property as public infrastructure.
The lawsuit also challenges the language used for the development’s creation, including the phrase “the specific terms and conditions of this ordinance shall prevail against other ordinances of the city to the extent that there may be any conflict.”
Seth Dornier, the attorney for the plaintiffs, did not return messages Tuesday.
Central residents have taken to a variety of Facebook groups to complain about the development. Debate about the merits of Shoe Creek is all over the “City of Central Rants and Raves” pages, while a page called “Save Central Recall Our Elected Officials” has accumulated more than 100 likes.
Mannino insists that he and the other plaintiffs have the majority of Central residents on their side.
“My interest has always been in honesty and integrity in government,” Mannino said. “And this TND that they passed has some serious legal issues in it.”