L’auberge Casino and Hotel officially joined the city of Baton Rouge on Wednesday night after the Metro Council voted to approve its petition for annexation. The move ensures that the proposed city of St. George, should it come to pass, will not have access to the $7 million in gaming taxes provided by the casino.
The council also annexed about four square miles of LSU’s south campus properties, made up of mostly farmland that includes the Ben Hur Research Station and the LSU Carrol L. Herring Fire and Emergency Training Institute.
The most recent annexations have shrunk the footprint of the proposed city on the west by about 10 square miles. Almost all of the land west of Nicholson Drive to the Mississippi River has been cut from St. George’s boundaries. But most of the land is undeveloped, and no homeowners have been annexed.
Lionel Rainey, a spokesman for the St. George incorporation effort, said Wednesday evening that organizers were not concerned with annexations.
“We’re not focused on the annexations. That’s out of our control,” he said. “We’re focused on what we can control: continuing to gather petitions and gearing up to defend the right to vote for the nearly 70,000 registered voters in the southern portion of the parish.”
The Metro Council voted, 11-1, to approve the annexations. Councilman Buddy Amoroso was the only one to vote against the annexations and offered a spirited defense of the city of St. George. Amoroso, who is running for a legislative seat for a district that encompasses much of the St. George area, also took aim at Baton Rouge attorney Mary Olive Pierson, who has been working with city officials in its fight against St. George.
Pierson told The Advocate earlier this month that she personally met with L’Auberge officials in Kansas City to ask them to annex into the city of Baton Rouge. She said she paid for her own travel and was offering her legal assistance to the city of Baton Rouge pro bono because of her personal desire to keep the parish whole.
Pierson has a contract with the city-parish to represent it in its ongoing legal battle with Republican activist and newspaper owner Woody Jenkins, who is challenging the recent annexation of the Mall of Louisiana. A district court judge tossed the suit, claiming Jenkins lacked standing. Jenkins has since filed an appeal.
Amoroso accused Pierson of a conflict of interest. But Pierson said that both her representation of the city-parish against Jenkins and her own personal work to annex businesses into the city of Baton Rouge are aligned in trying to protect the parish from the potential negative financial impacts of the incorporation of St. George.
“I’m a 70 year old woman who has lived here for 70 years and I’m vitally interested in keeping this parish together,” Pierson said.
Amoroso made a motion to remove her as attorney in the Jenkins suit, but the motion died for lack of a second.
“I don’t know why you’d want to fire an attorney after she won,” Pierson quipped. Amoroso echoed many of the statements of St. George organizers, saying that he resented what he sees as an underhanded attempt at trying to invalidate the St. George petition and prevent those residents from having an opportunity to vote.
“Twenty five percent of the people in St. George signed this petition and what aggravates me is that this is a means of trying to take away people’s rights to vote,” Amoroso said. Pierson responded that after a year of campaigning, “75 percent of those people refused to sign that petition.”
On Monday, St. George organizers submitted their petition with about 18,200 signatures. The petition will be validated over the course of the next month before an election can be set for next March.
In other business, the Metro Council voted to defer the addition of three new Capital Area Transit System routes, targeting Nicholson Drive, the Garden District and LSU, after officials representing the Old State Capitol complained about downtown buses blocking the entrance.
Wade Shows, representing Secretary of State Tom Schedler, whose office oversees the historic building, said the CATS downtown waiting area in front of the Old State Capitol has buses parked in a fire zone and handicap spaces.
The area serves as one of CATS’ hubs where riders catch connecting buses to get to their destinations. It’s one of CATS’ busiest hubs, with 12 bus routes connecting through downtown.
The bus hub was initially placed next to the library, where a covered waiting area was built in North Boulevard Town Square, but the buses were blocking traffic and the area was inaccessible during downtown events such as Live after Five. So the buses were moved across the street in front of the Manship Theater, until complaints about blocking that area moved the buses to their current spot front of the Old State Capitol building.
CATS CEO Bob Mirabito said it would take about four months to reconfigure the routes to move the hub and cost about $500,000. Downtown Development District Executive Director Davis Rhorer suggested that CATS use an old transfer hub on River Road, where he’s arranged for space for eight buses to park.
Mirabito said he was concerned that moving further away from the center of downtown would deter riders from using the service.
“We feel like the stepchild,” he said. “We’re trying to provide a service to city of Baton Rouge, but every time we go some place they tell us, ‘Not in my neighborhood.’”
Shows said CATS needed to exhibit some urgency in addressing the problem. He said school children are regularly dropped off in the bus zone for field trips to the Old State Capitol and are put in a danger by having to walk past all the buses.
“Some child is going to get killed within the next four months,” Shows said.