The attorney representing Baton Rouge in its expected legal battles with the proposed city of St. George said she’s keeping a close eye on a similar incorporation effort — albeit much smaller — in Livingston Parish by residents of Satsuma.
The Satsuma incorporation was set for a March 28 election, which would have made it the first incorporation effort in the state to make it to a ballot since the city of Central in 2005. But late Monday evening, a state judge blocked the Satsuma election until a legal dispute over the proposed boundaries of the town is resolved.
Mary Olive Pierson, who was hired in January to represent the city-parish, said while the two incorporation efforts have significant differences — primarily related to the impact an incorporation would have to the parishes at large — some of the legal challenges are similar. She said court decisions in the Satsuma could set precedents for the St. George case. And both cases could very well end up in the state’s First Circuit Court of Appeal.
“Certainly, what a judge does with the Satsuma case will be influential,” she said. “I’m not certain if it will be influential in a positive or negative way yet, but we are watching very closely.”
Satsuma incorporators were motivated by their objection to plans from parish leaders to build a general aviation airport in the area. The leaders of the effort say incorporating would give the town more control in the way land is developed and a stronger voice in opposing the airport. The original proposal for the town included about 6,500 acres, about 10 square miles and roughly 2,000 residents. There is no clear budget for Satsuma, though organizers have suggested revenues could be generated from franchise fees and development permits.
The proposed city of St. George, by contrast, would be about 80 square miles and encompass more than 100,000 residents, making it one of the state’s most populous cities. It was rooted in a desire to create an independent school system, but has since grown more broadly into a movement of people dissatisfied with Baton Rouge government.
Satsuma organizers needed 255 signatures, compared to St. George, which needs about 18,000 to make it to the ballot. St. George’s petition drive is likely the largest in state history, and is still in the process of being validated by the Registrar of Voters before the governor can call an election.
As the Satsuma incorporation has advanced, it’s faced some of the same challenges St. George did and is expected to endure. For example, Satsuma’s footprint has been drastically reduced by a recent annexation that split the proposed town into two unconnected halves. A group of property owners and residents included in the Satsuma boundaries last week successfully petitioned to join the town of Livingston instead. The annexation included 56 registered voters and some of the town’s most prominent businesses.
On a larger scale, the city of Baton Rouge has annexed some of the richest businesses out of St. George’s proposed boundaries, which has carved out much of St. George’s expected city revenues.
The small proposed town incorporation is also facing a legal challenge, which claims the town would be ill equipped to provide required public services to the unreasonably large vacant land included in the boundaries. The suit also claims incorporation organizers coerced people into signing their petition on false pretenses and that the boundaries of the town were drawn to prevent some residents from being able to vote, despite the fact that much of their property was included in the proposed town.
Pierson said boundaries will be legally challenged in the St. George case, should the petition be moved forward to a vote.
“The boundaries on the petition for St. George have been dramatically changed since the petition was drawn up. About 10 square miles have been removed,” she said. “That’s important. If those things are dramatically changed, then the petition isn’t what people signed.”
Lionel Rainey, St. George spokesman, noted that the reason St. George’s boundaries have changed is because Baton Rouge officials purposefully sought the annexations. He noted that the state Attorney General’s Office has already said this shouldn’t impact the validity of the petition.
Pierson also said she believes St. George supporters misled people who signed their petition. She said she’s heard that some people were told they couldn’t vote in an election if they didn’t sign the petition, and she said affidavits will be collected from people who felt they’d signed the petition under false pretenses.
Rainey dismissed the allegation, saying that if any affidavits materialize with people saying they were coerced into signing that they are probably plants from opponents trying to make the effort look bad.
“They will do and say whatever they can to keep this from being on the ballot,” Rainey said.
The Satsuma lawsuit includes affidavits from residents who signed the petition who say they were told to sign the petition to receive additional information and to get reductions in rent payments.
Baton Rouge attorney Yigal Bander, who represented plaintiffs who tried to block the city of Central incorporation, said he thinks, at a minimum, the Satsuma injunction could pave the way for a similar delay for St. George.
“If opponents raise a credible allegation of statutory or constitutional defect with the effort, even after the governor has ordered the election, here’s a district judge who will stop that,” Bander said. “If they convince a trial judge they’ve raised issues that are serious enough to block the effort, then an election would be put on hold until they’re settled.”