As tensions simmer between West Feliciana officials and bicyclists who flock to the parish’s rolling hills, a group is trying to meet in the middle about how to move the sport forward in the parish after an East Baton Rouge councilman died after a vehicle hit him.
West Feliciana Parish leaders took input on possible bicycling requirements at two public meetings, but not everyone agrees on the next steps. One lawyer questions the legality of some of the proposed regulations while other bicycle advocates think the parish should instead focus on awareness campaigns.
Baton Rouge council member Buddy Amoroso died while cycling on a West Feliciana road several weeks ago, but even before his death, government leaders had grown concerned about bicyclists on the roads that wind through the scenic parish. Committee chairman Mel Percy has repeatedly said Amoroso’s death did not prompt the idea of a new ordinance, but rather hastened it.
“The fact that the gentleman died started a huge Facebook deal in our parish,” Percy said. ”That’s what caused us to bring up ‘OK, we need to nip this in the bud because it’s getting hostile’ and it is still hostile between some citizens in the parish and the cyclists.”
The discussion got heated on both sides at the second public meeting last month on the possible ordinance. Some residents complained they can’t see bicyclists when driving or claimed the bicyclists were taking up too much of the road. Bicyclists pushed back, saying requiring bike lights visible up to a mile or lasers to alert them to vehicles would shift the burden from the drivers to the bicyclists.
Jenni Peters, owner of Varsity Sports and a West Feliciana property owner, said there was a lot of good discussion at the first meeting and people were mostly respectful of others’ opinions, but that seemed to change with the second gathering.
“I came out of (the first meeting) with a good feeling about being able to come to some understandings, but then after the fact as it rolled into the second meeting it’s as if some of the people may not have been as open minded or had heard what I thought they had heard,” Peters said.
Aimee Moreau, an area race director, said the feedback at the second meeting got “a little hostile.”
“Some people had really strong feelings about the recommendations and I think the committee was trying to make a genuine effort into what they thought would work but they also don’t have any cycling background,” Moreau said.
After that second meeting, Percy initiated some independent meetings with bicyclists to further discuss his list of suggestions. He said he identified people to reach out to based on how they responded at the second meeting because he can distinguish “when somebody wants to find a compromise or stir the pot.”
Percy said he has decided, based on that small group discussion, to shift toward an “either/or” format for his proposed ordinance. Instead of mandating bicyclists to wear fluorescent colors and have a bicycle light, for example, they would have to have to have at least one of them.
He is still hashing out the specifics, but he will present his full proposal to the bicycle committee at its next meeting, which hasn’t been set yet. If they vote to bring it before the full council, it could be introduced as early as September and then voted on in October.
“I think that what we came up with is extremely fair," Percy said. "You don’t write laws for the good, law-abiding citizens. You write them for the people who take advantage of things.”
Bike Law Louisiana attorney Charlie Thomas issued a public letter soon after the second public meeting expressing his concern about the legality of many of the possible parts of the proposal. He pointed out that under existing law, a parish council cannot enact new rules over a city or state road. He also questioned if a parish council has the power to require the registration of bicyclists.
“Secondarily to the ‘is this even legal?’ we would then have to go to ‘is this effective?’” Thomas said. “And is this an ordinance that we would hope would reduce the number of traffic crashes? There’s a big feeling in the bicycling community that the recent death of councilman Buddy Amoroso … still would have happened if they had been following the new proposed regulation.”
The driver of the SUV that struck Amoroso, 21-year-old Nicholas Alexander, of Lafayette, was booked into West Feliciana Parish jail after the crash on counts of negligent homicide, negligent injuring and limitations on passing bicycles.
Percy said he has discussed Thomas’s letter with the parish attorney, but he doesn’t see the points raised as roadblocks to a potential ordinance.
“No, we’re not concerned at all,” Percy said. “We’ve got a brilliant attorney and we also have contact through the state Department of Transportation and Development, and their attorney has also given us their opinion that we can do whatever we want on our road.”
Many bicyclists have come out to critique these suggestions, but Peters, the Varsity Sports owner, said the council needs to think about the everyday, recreational riders.
“I think the council people of the parish need to consider every cyclist that’s going to set foot in that parish when they start discussing,” Peters said. “ Because you can speak to this group of avid cyclists … but how do you speak to the husband, wife and family who go up there and don’t know all these things?”
While many bicyclists and residents from across the state continue voicing their opinions on the proposals in ever-growing Facebook discussions, they continue their rides in West Feliciana.
One Facebook event for a ride in St. Francisville on Sunday was titled “HAVE YOUR BIKE LIGHTS.” The ride’s host, Craig Brouillette of the Varsity Sports Tour de Friends cycling group, has been part of an initiative to distribute bicycle lights. Brouillette also helped organize a “blessing of the bicycles” ride and blessing on Aug. 12.
“We thought about (doing a blessing) several months ago, but Buddy Amoroso was part of our group and when that happened, we said, 'OK, let’s go ahead and get this done,'” Brouillette said.
Moreau and her teams at Varsity Sports, Rocketkidz Foundation and Varsity Sports Tour de Friends have already given out hundreds of the bicycle lights. They want to focus on a safety and awareness program, instead of an ordinance.
“If the council embraces the cycling community and focuses their efforts on safety and awareness, as many other small towns have done, the outcome will be positive for both cyclists and residents,” Moreau said.