Opposition to moving the Baton Rouge Zoo expanded Thursday, as a state legislator filed a bill that would require the recreation and parks commission to keep the zoo at its current site at Greenwood Park while an opposition group tried to rile up allies.
State Rep. Barbara West Carpenter, D-Baton Rouge, is sponsoring House Bill 481, which she said is her attempt to keep a viable and important asset in the northern part of the parish that she represents. BREC’s proposal is to spend around $110 million on building a new, state-of-the-art zoo at their Airline Highway Park in the southern part of the parish, while they would spend an additional $40 million to expand Greenwood Park in place of the zoo in north Baton Rouge.
But Carpenter, along with some other north Baton Rouge political representatives in the Legislature and on the East Baton Rouge Metro Council, said she wants to see BREC improve the zoo at its current location. BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight has previously argued that the zoo’s location off Highway 19 is unsustainable, and that the zoo needs to be in a more highly trafficked part of the parish.
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“It has gotten to a point where I felt that the majority of the population in East Baton Rouge is not being represented by the anticipated wishes of BREC with the move of the zoo,” Carpenter said Thursday. “I started looking at what was going on and I didn’t like what I saw. They deliberately, in my opinion, have let the zoo die.”
BREC is a political subdivision of the state that received more than $56 million last year from parishwide dedicated property taxes. Baton Rouge council members can appoint members to the BREC commission, but the council cannot legislate how BREC is run. The Legislature, on the other hand, created BREC.
Carpenter’s bill would prevent BREC from running any facility “for the purpose of maintaining a collection of wild animals for study, conservation or display to the public” that is not located within the boundaries of Thomas Road to the south, Highway 19 to the west, Lavey Lane to the north and Plank Road on the east.
"We believe legislation that seeks to dictate where specific recreation facilities are located sets a dangerous precedent for future development in our community and state," said BREC spokeswoman Cheryl Michelet. "This is a local issue that is already being studied in-depth by the BREC Commission, staff, and qualified third-party engineers. Our duty as public employees is to serve as many people across East Baton Rouge Parish as we can with the resources we have been entrusted with by the public."
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BREC staffers have recently ramped up their efforts to move the zoo to Airline Highway Park and the state fairgrounds, which is near the border of Baton Rouge and Ascension Parish. They expect to ask their commission March 22 for permission to move to the site.
Metro Councilwoman Chauna Banks and a group called Keep the Zoo at Greenwood Park also tried to persuade a small group of people Thursday evening to hammer BREC staffers and commissioners with reasons why the zoo should not move. They presented their own plan to improve the zoo in its current location, and to turn the combination of the zoo and Greenwood Park into an “ecotourism” site with trails, kayaking and other options for nature lovers.
They want the zoo to relocate its entrance to Highway 19, to allow for Capital Area Transit System bus access, and to use the privately owned nearby Profit Island for overnight visits. The group believes the zoo could follow through on those plans, which LSU graduate students originated, for around $35 million. Many at the meeting predicted that BREC would need a tax if it pursues its $110 million zoo relocation.
“We have some really great options that are just being ignored,” said Becky Bond, who has been one of the most vocal opponents to moving the zoo.
She and others also questioned the safety of the Airline site for animals, given that the southeast corner of the state fairgrounds was a 17.5 acre landfill in the ’70s. It was covered in dirt in 1990. A state Department of Environmental Quality memo from 2010 said previous investigations detected multiple hazardous materials at the site.
Baker councilman Pete Heine, who attended the meeting, said it’s unfair that Baton Rouge taxpayers already sustain the zoo but Ascension Parish residents would reap the benefit of the move without paying BREC taxes.
The board that oversees Baton Rouge's park system has resurrected a proposal to move the Baton Rouge Zoo to the Airline Highway Park near the …
Asked about the opposition, Michelet responded that “a rally against the relocation of the zoo is also a rally against significant improvements at Greenwood Park that would attract more visitors to the park based on surveys of the surrounding community.”
BREC has also already spent more than $40,000 on contracts with engineering and consulting firms to come up with drainage plans and to study the traffic impacts at the Airline Highway site. Much of the Airline Park was under water in August 2016 when floods inundated Baton Rouge, and BREC has hired Duplantis Design Group to help figure out how they could engineer the Airline site to prevent future floods.
But critics, including Carpenter and the Keep the Zoo at Greenwood crowd, have used the floods at the Airline site as evidence why the zoo should not move there. The current site did not flood.
“They’re trying to locate it in a place that’s totally flooded and in an area with heavy traffic,” Carpenter said. “You’re not looking at the rights of the animals. It makes no sense to me.”
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Michelet countered that the Airline site checks the boxes for success for a zoo. She said the proposed zoo relocation to Airline and improvements at Greenwood would allow BREC to serve as many people as possible at both locations.
The regular 2018 legislative session has not started yet, so Carpenter’s bill does not yet have a hearing date. Carpenter said she is not bothered by the timing of her bill against the March 22 BREC meeting, but said she hopes her bill makes commissioners rethink whether to vote on the new location.
The remainder of the Keep the Zoo at Greenwood Park rallies are scheduled for 6 p.m. March 13 at the Baker Branch Library; 6 p.m March 15 at the Central Branch Library; and 6 p.m. March 20 at the Scotlandville Branch Library.