|Bizarre boundaries of Baton Rouge lead to higher taxes for some, increased insurance for others and confusion for almost everyone.|
In 1926, Baton Rouge High School was built outside city limits—four blocks east of the boundary line at South 22nd Street. For 23 years the flagship school operated outside the city, and Baton Rouge had bigger dreams than its five square miles and 35,000 people.
In the summer of 1947, as voters contemplated raising taxes for services and expanding city limits to 30 square miles by incorporating city and parish governments, Mayor Powers Higginbotham in the Morning Advocate urged for “progress” over “stagnation” to avoid “governmental paralysis that will prove fatal to the interest and welfare of our people.”
With voters' approval that August, Baton Rouge staked its easternmost city limits about five miles past BRHS at the Airline Highway-Florida Boulevard traffic circle. It was effective Jan. 1, 1949, and the population tripled to an estimated 106,000 people.
More than 60 years and 107 annexations later, Baton Rouge's city limits appear as nonsensical as the 1752 Carte de la Louisiane, a French-Louisiana coastal map hanging in the downtown library's Baton Rouge Room. Not much seems to be in its rightful place. Pockets of Greater Baton Rouge—especially around the Interstate 10-Interstate 12 split, and east and south of it—remain carved out of the city, appearing as bays of inconsequential property. In fact, much of the city's business and commerce hum outside the lines: the Mall of Louisiana, the east side of Essen Lane, the Baton Rouge Country Club, and the ironically named Towne Center.
It's not simply a matter of a byzantine map. The limits determine who pays higher taxes; those within the city limits pay more because of a CATS tax. Yet the lines also mean those outside the city pay more for homeowners insurance, because of a different rating of their fire department. And the crazy quilt also creates confusion for some concerning public safety issues.
“It doesn't make a lot of sense to have these large areas in the center of town that aren't in city limits,” says Metro Council candidate Ryan Heck, who is running unopposed in District 11; incumbent Alison Gary is not seeking re-election. “Maybe we should look at incorporating some more territory—the things that make sense.”
The center of town
Take Towne Center. Arguably the paragon of Mid City shopping, with its bourgeois boutiques and emporiums, it is an island unto itself, surrounded by city limits. The Towne Center's northern boundary at Jefferson Highway is the 1949 border.
Before Towne Center was developed several years ago, cattle roamed through an expansive wooded area, and city services were an afterthought.
With crazy-quilt lines defining the Baton Rouge city limits, can you recognize the following 10 landmarks and determine if they fall within the incorporated area of the city? We reveal the answers at the end of this story.
“There was no real reason to ask for it to be annexed in the city limits,” says former property owner Phil Witter, whose family's Live Oak Arabians stables is nearby.
Today, the development receives access to CATS and at times Baton Rouge Police, but does not pay taxes specific to the city.
Towne Center developer Stephen Keller was apparently unaware of a benefit of annexation: cheaper fire insurance.
Towne Center is in the jurisdiction of the St. George Fire Department. Compared to the Baton Rouge Fire Department's Class 1 rating, St. George's Class 2 rating makes fire insurance more expensive. The difference, over the decades, had spurred many annexations among homeowners and property owners.
City police also serve Towne Center, despite its being in the jurisdiction of the sheriff's office.
“We'll respond to back them up” in the event of an emergency, such as a felony, says city police Cpl. Tommy Stubbs. But the sheriff's office is the lead agency.
That overlap gives Towne Center less incentive to get annexed, says Witter: “The lines have blurred.”
Would Keller want Towne Center to leave the island and join the city?
“You brought some things to his attention that I don't think he's really thought about,” says Rebecca Rainier, Keller's spokeswoman.
Despite receiving some city benefits, including access to CATS without the taxes, and the geographical oddity of Towne Center, Keller declined to comment.
Towne Center, however, hardly stands alone. Greater Baton Rouge's hustle and bustle—particularly to the east—remains far outside the city limits. Bluebonnet Boulevard, a veritable merchandising ribbon with the Mall of Louisiana and Perkins Rowe on its shoulder, is in some cases a mile outside city limits.
Costlier fire insurance aside, those shopping centers—and L'Auberge Casino & Hotel Baton Rouge—are beneficiaries of CATS transportation routes. Because they are outside city limits, they don't pay the 10.6 mills that fund bus services.
CATS this year pushed city taxes to 116.298 millages, up from 105.698 in 2011.
In general, for those in unincorporated areas, the East Baton Rouge Parish tax is 106.578 millages. Assessor Brian Wilson says the Comite Diversion Canal's 2.92-millage rate taxes properties both inside and outside the city, depending on district.
The East Baton Rouge City-Parish Home Rule Charter does not include a provision that allows the city to annex property.
“It's mainly a developer-driven issue,” says EBR Council Administrator Brian Mayers. “There's no initiative for us to say [the city] is going to annex this and we're going to annex that.”
Developers, individuals or civic associations who push for annexing land into the city must petition those who will be affected. That includes a majority—more than 50%—of registered voters and property owners in the area, including owners whose property accounts for 25% of the area's value. The Metro Council then gives final approval.
Annexation power should switch to the city, contends mayoral candidate Mike Walker. The switch would allow what some would consider an equitable taxing structure and logical delivery of public services.
“I really don't know what it would take,” Walker says, “but I think it's time to find out.”
The state annexation statute was revised during Gov. Mike Foster's administration. Before, developers and neighborhoods had to ask for their areas to be annexed. Since, cities with new ordinances can annex land, in some cases without voter approval.
Annexation or bust
Lafayette and other Lafayette Parish cities are currently on an annexation binge, with 442 annexations in the parish's capital seat since 1960.
Lafayette has recently made it easier for its local government to annex land into the city limits.
Lafayette annexation coordinator Frank Thibeaux says annexations there are largely driven by access—only available in the city—to the Lafayette Utilities System: water, sewer, electricity and the fiber network.
“We just feel your property is worth more in the city of Lafayette,” says Thibeaux, noting there have been 14 annexations this year. “And I've got more in the hopper.”
Meanwhile, now at nearly 75 square miles, Baton Rouge has annexed three properties since 2000. They total a little more than half a square mile.
A tale of two jurisdictions
There is a Baton Rouge annexation currently in the works, however, and it was triggered by production difficulties for an alien-invasion apocalypse movie in 2009.
Studio operators at the Celtic Media Centre realized they could consolidate on-set security through annexation, after having to call on both the St. George and Baton Rouge fire departments—and both city police and the sheriff's office—so actor Aaron Eckhart could safely run around explosions and shoot up computer-generated, bellicose extraterrestrials in Battle: Los Angeles.
Celtic Media's 23-acre studio facility on Celtic Drive, off Bluebonnet Boulevard, is outside city limits. A majority of the old Baton Rouge Coca-Cola Bottling Co. plant on Airline Highway, which Celtic uses for studio sets, is in city limits. Filming action scenes with pyrotechnics and car crashes at either location requires professional help on scene in case of emergency. Both Battle: Los Angeles and Oblivion, a Tom Cruise science-fiction thriller due out in 2013, used Celtic and Coca-Cola sets at the same time. The city limits jigsaw pitted filming for both movies under the jurisdiction of two different fire and police departments.
“It's been very confusing,” says Patrick Mulhearn, director of studio operations at Celtic Media. “They'd get confused and call the wrong fire department,” Mulhearn says.
Last January, Celtic initiated the annexation of about 30 acres—including SAIF Federal Credit Union and a portion of the former Coca-Cola plant—for all of Celtic Drive and Winston Avenue.
“It streamlines it so we're not this island outside of the city,” Mulhearn says.
In June, city-parish government gave Celtic Media a legal petition for its credit union and plant neighbors to sign and move the annexation forward.
“We don't foresee any major hang-ups in the process,” says Aaron Bayham, operations manager for Raleigh Studios at Celtic Media. “We're not in a rush to complete the annexation, but we hope to move forward in the next few months."
Paying higher taxes did not factor into Celtic Media's decision. “If anything, it was nominal,” Mulhearn says.
Annexation before development
Before it was built, The Cottages of Baton Rouge on Ben Hur Road had its lot annexed in 2010. Charles Landry, a real estate attorney at Jones Walker, says the annexation was simple: No residents lived there yet at the upscale student housing near Nicholson Drive and West Lee Drive, so no petition was required.
Landry expedited the same deal for annexation of the McDonald's property on West Lee near Burbank Drive in 1998.
The Cottages developer wanted the apartments annexed for safety reasons, Landry says. “Any time you tend to be close to the city, there tends to be some confusion with police and fire—who is to respond?”
Clear-cut safeguards for all those risk-taking college kids trumped concern about higher taxes at The Cottages. “It was more expensive, from a tax standpoint, to go in the city,” Landry says. “But it removed all confusion.”
The attorney foresees more development and similar decisions on Nicholson Drive.
“I definitely believe you're going to see some more annexations in the future,” Landry says.
Before 2010, the western boundary of St. George's jurisdiction lay at Nicholson Drive. It now lies at River Road, while the northwest boundary was pushed from South Kenilworth Parkway to West Lee.
“I've been here long enough, to where, we responded to parts of Brightside [Lane] that were not in the city,” says St. George Fire Chief Gerard Tarleton. “It wasn't in our district [either], but we responded.”
Because of a mutual-aid agreement, St. George and BRFD both respond to fires close to boundary lines and assist on multiple-alarm fires within each other's borders.
The geographical oddity that is the Towne Center benefits from the mutual-aid agreement and the city fire department's proximity.
“Baton Rouge is probably first in there, and we're second,” Tarleton says, “but we're in Towne Center all the time.”
On the flip side, there are parts of Baton Rouge—Essen Lane, Jefferson Highway—that benefit from St. George's proximity. “We're first in at Our Lady of the Lake [Regional Medical Center],” Tarleton says.
With a lesser fire rating than Baton Rouge, the St. George district, Tarleton says, has traditionally been more expensive to live in. But CATS changed that.
The problems of the past persist.
“It grows more obvious each day as our traffic problems increase, our problems of taxation and government grow more complex, and the inadequacy of parks and educational and recreational and other facilities becomes more evident,” the Morning Advocate editorialized in June of 1947.
Time will tell if the parish pockets inside the city are ever to be annexed, as expansion moves incrementally farther south and southeast. It may be that “'Baton Rouge is getting almost too big,'” as the State Times in 1948 noted of some citizens' sentiment for staying at five square miles.
NOW YOU KNOW
The answers to our quiz above:
1. Towne Center, outside city limits
2. Baton Rouge High, inside city limits
3. Mall of Louisiana, outside city limits
4. Our Lady of the Lake, inside city limits
5. Shaw headquarters, outside city limits
6. B.R. Country Club, outside city limits
7. Metro airport, inside city limits
8. Celtic Media Centre, outside city limits
9. Robinson Brothers, inside city limits
10. Brian Harris Chevrolet, inside city limits
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The old two-year college try