|The power and the practicality of the rise of neighborhood associations|
Lord, it feels good to join the association, that informal personal power grid that hums away in so many urban and suburban neighborhoods in Baton Rouge.
It also draws folks into turf talks they never thought were possible.
Today, Jason Hargrave is thinking about bees.
“There is a lady who is keeping bees in her backyard, and it was brought to our attention by her neighbor, who is allergic to bees,” Hargrave says. “He has asked the council to do something about the fact that she is keeping bees. It's gotten to be a complicated situation.”
Legally, you can keep bees in Baton Rouge. But according to the deed restrictions of the Bluebonnet Highlands Civic Association, livestock, including chickens, cows and goats, are not allowed.
But are bees livestock? Or are they just a nuisance?
There will be a discussion about it at the association's next meeting, which will likely be sparsely attended, as are most neighborhood association meetings, even when a big change is happening.
But it will buzz with a flurry of activity once the bee question gets popped. And Hargrave, who is new to this association and was recently elected president, will have to prevail through it all.
This is how they roll in the streets. The nice streets.
Widely acknowledged to be a gateway to urban politics, association life isn't always easy.
But grassroots neighborhood groups play an important role in shaping life in a city. They are often catalysts for sidewalks, bike lanes and nice play areas. Many in Baton Rouge provide increased security and a secondary police force to resident members.
Then there are the members, who sometimes patrol the streets armed with rulers and a well-worn copy of the deed restrictions.
The ones who take photographs of messy yards and leave anonymous notes reminding homeowners to clean up the street or else. The ones who count cars in the front yard and drive slow.
“They get so far out there on the edge about how tall the buildings should be,” says Dallas Ballmer, president of the Federation of Greater Baton Rouge Civic Associations.
“They are good people, every one of them. There are some busybodies. But they get overridden. It's not our club. I try to remind them of that all the time. We have a bigger responsibility to check and balance ourselves.”
First, a little lesson in civic groups: Homeowners associations are different from civic associations. When a developer launches a suburb, it's common practice to create a homeowners association (HOA), where each household has to pay dues to maintain common areas. Those members are often held to a list of restrictions and rules about what they can and can't do with their property. This is meant to keep up the appearance of the neighborhood.
Older neighborhoods legally can't backtrack and form an HOA. That has to be put into place when the neighborhood is planted. So their answer is the civic association, which is usually voluntary. Members of a civic association don't have the legal leverage that HOAs often have. If you don't keep up your property or pay dues, an HOA can put a lien on your property.
Hargrave's Bluebonnet Highlands has one of the largest and most active HOAs in the city. The city's most active civic association is arguably the Southside Civic Association, which encompasses the Perkins Road Overpass and Southdowns areas.
The Southside Civic Association is quick to ask questions of developers and demand thorough communication from anyone who wants to mess with the 'hood.
The group attends meetings, networks feistily and raises a ruckus, with the sole purpose of maintaining the neighborhood's unique qualites.
“We are very much into keeping the south side of Perkins Road residential,” says Carole Anne Brown, vice president of the association.
Brown grew up on her current property on Hyacinth Drive and spends many evenings attending meetings—not just civic association get-togethers, but planning and zoning commission meetings, public forums, Metro Council meetings and information sessions.
Off the top of her head, Brown can list the exact names and addresses of people who are currently trying to turn their properties into business offices. She's on a first-name basis with members of the Metro Council. Local restaurants learn to go along with what Southside Civic Association wants—or face delays.
“I went to all of the FuturEBR planning sessions,” says Brown. “And the final FuturEBR plan has it where the south side of Perkins Road is residential, excluding the other places that are already established, and they just crept in. And then the north side of Perkins Road is commercial.”
Brown and other leaders in the Southside Civic Association have been vocal—some might say rabid—in their criticism of the new Rouzan subdivision and its developer, Tommy Spinosa.
They don't want the development to be zoned to include libraries, churches, office buildings, schools and—here's the clincher, which Brown and others like her are irritated about—full connectivity to adjoining Southdowns streets. Around 9,000 additional trips per day will crisscross the stately turf of Southdowns.
That might drain the sewage system, kick up crime and bring noise to the area.
Go ahead, Brown and her association members say, squaring their shoulders. Make our day. Just try to build your new neighborhood, with all these non-homes in it, without our input.
We'll be at every meeting.
We'll haunt you.
We're up for as many rounds of this fight as it takes.
“It's not that we are not for development,” Brown says. “But we are for the neighborhood being preserved.”
Brown and her association neighbors know they have been called NIMBYs, short for “not in my backyard,” a pejorative name that smart growth proponents spit at anyone who opposes mixed use developments or connectivity.
But Brown says she's just doing her civic duty. It's important to get involved. And, Lord, it feels good to stay connected, even if you make a few enemies along the way.
“I grew up in both Southdowns and Pollard, and a development like [Rouzan] would have been a dream come true for a recreational bicyclist like me,” says Kathleen Callaghan, who served on the planning and zoning commission and tried to no avail to sell “mischief makers”—her words—in the Southside Civic Association on Rouzan.
At one point, she says, she was granted the title of “Worst Person in the World” by the Southside Civic Association.
“I wear it proudly,” she says. “The Southdowns NIMBYs are still fighting every single phase of the development, despite the fact that it's well under way, and some people have already moved into their homes.”
Meanwhile, over in Sherwood Forest, a resident climbs up on top of a red wagon, glazed with rainwater, to snap scandalous snapshots of a white chicken, thereby proving that her neighbor's chicken coop is just plain ugly.
On a suburban street in another part of town, someone scrawls a makeshift sign with a Sharpie marker, scratching angrily, “Please STOP Parking On The Street!!!” then secretly sliding it under an unoccupied car's windshield.
And an anonymous note goes in the mail that both compliments and tears down its recipient. Even if it doesn't say in the deed restrictions that she can't paint her door ruby, if the neighbor claims the deed restrictions can be read that way, maybe she will get intimidated and paint the entry an acceptable, barely noticeable beige.
“There are all sorts of stories about neighbors that you have to deal with,” chuckles Ballmer, who says his training in the Boy Scouts and U.S. Air Force might just have prepared him for neighborhood association life.
It's important that association members remember their higher selves as they serve in this most basic of civic capacities. Pettiness and power trips are rife, he says, but neighborhoods achieve more if they can stay focused.
“I tell them, 'You are a representative of a group of people. Don't get carried away.'"
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