Southdowns zoning dispute called 'test case' for FuturEBR

Southdowns zoning dispute called 'test case' for FuturEBR

If you don't live in the Southdowns neighborhood, you might be inclined to write off the controversy over a requested zoning change for the property at Perkins Road and Stuart Avenue as just another neighborhood land-use dispute.

But the impending showdown between property owner Ben Skillman and the neighborhood is about so much more: namely, how seriously the city-parish is going to take its new land-use plan, FuturEBR, and how much weight the plan will carry in deciding land-use issues moving forward.

"This is going to serve as a model of how we look at FuturEBR and how we interpret it," predicts Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker, who also serves as a member of the East Baton Rouge Parish Planning Commission.

Wicker and her fellow commissioners will get their first crack at the issue Monday night. They were originally scheduled to take up the matter in August, but Skillman withdrew his request in hopes of working out a compromise with the neighborhood. In the two months since, the dispute has only become more contentious. St. Aloysius Church Parish, which abuts the property in question, is actively opposing Skillman's request, and Southdowns residents are vowing to fight, too.

The problem, they say, is Skillman wants to rezone his property from residential to ISPUD—a zoning category unique to Baton Rouge that allows for exceptions to the zoning code in certain instances of small, infill development. His request would also require an amendment to the map of FuturEBR.

Southdowns is almost all residential on the south side of Perkins Road, though there are some notable exceptions that still make residents cringe—a tattoo parlor, for example, and a quickie po-boy shop. The map of FuturEBR appears to call for keeping that side of Perkins residential, including Skillman's 1.3-acre lot. A Future Land Use map shows the entire south side of Perkins shaded yellow, for residential neighborhood, with just a handful of golden-colored lots zoned compact neighborhood.

The bigger issue, though, according to some Southdowns residents, is the underlying reason for the requested change: Skillman is trying to sell his property to a pair of psychiatrists who need the ISPUD designation so they can use the property for their medical office.

"You're talking about a single, private property owner getting an amendment to FuturEBR so he can sell his property in a depressed real estate market," says Walker Delaune, a Southdowns resident opposed to the change.

Skillman's attorney, Randy Roussel, counters that while the future land-use map of FuturEBR suggests residential zoning for the property, the corner on which it sits is across Perkins Road from some of the busiest commercial establishments in the area, including bars, restaurants, a gas station and a convenience store. What's more, he says, the language of FuturEBR is clear that the map can be amended to reflect surrounding land use—and he argues that the land surrounding Skillman's property is not used for single-family homes but for CC's Coffee, Sonic and Benny's B-Qwik.

"If you go through and read FuturEBR, it shows these lines are not drawn in the sand," Roussel says. "That one page makes clear that the map should be liberally amended based on a more detailed analysis of sites."

If the question ultimately comes down to how liberally you define "surrounding land use," Southdowns residents say their interpretation is strict. They worry that allowing this change will amount to letting the camel's nose under the tent. What happens if the psychiatrists move out? What, then, protects the neighborhood from a nail salon or payday lender?

"If this change is allowed to go through, it will open the floodgates," warns Greg Aycock, an attorney representing St. Aloysius.

Roussel counters that Skillman's zoning request is very specific and that an ISPUD designation—by its very definition—limits what can be done on a property. In this case, the planned use cannot exceed 6,300 square feet, must retain its residential look, and can only be used as a professional office—not as a commercial establishment. Furthermore, there cannot be any commercial signage or blinking lights, and a buffer of trees around the property must be preserved.

"That's why we're going for an ISPUD and not a commercial rezoning," Roussel says. "You know what is going to go there, and it has to stay like that."

At least until the next rezoning request comes along. Then, the battle can be fought again, say Skillman's opponents, which is why they want to see FuturEBR closely followed. It's the new master plan for development in the city. Why should a single landowner get to change it for his own personal gain?

Though Wicker does not necessarily share that interpretation, she agrees it will be the underlying issue that colors the debate. She also agrees it's an important discussion to have.

"This is the first test case," she says. "It's a classic example of why we need FuturEBR and why we need to work these things out."

Wicker hopes the two sides can come together and reach some sort of agreement between now and early next week, though at this point a compromise is very unlikely. In fact, Southdowns residents are still smarting because they were not asked to present their point of view at a workshop Wicker hosted last month to hash out the matter with fellow Planning Commission members. Roussel was given agenda time; Southdowns residents were merely allowed to get up and speak as members of the audience.

"We just want a level playing field," says Delaune.

For now, the odds are stacked against them. The Planning Commission staff is recommending the rezoning be allowed. Though the commission doesn't always follow staff advice, it typically does, which means the dispute will not be settled Monday night but, more likely, next month when it goes to the Metro Council, which has the final word.

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