BRAF drops request for Baton Rouge Health District zoning approval

    In the wake of last week’s heated Metro Council Zoning Committee meeting, the Planning Commission—at the request of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation—has asked the council to withdraw from its agenda the item formally creating the Baton Rouge Health District.

    At its Feb. 17 meeting, the council voted 7-4 to defer the health district measure for 90 days after angry north Baton Rouge residents spoke against it. Though creation of the health district is simply a land-use designation applied to an existing medical corridor, opponents argued it was frivolous to create a health district in south Baton Rouge given the lack of health care options in north Baton Rouge.

    Planning Director Frank Duke says the Planning Commission was technically the applicant for the Health District’s creation, and that he asked the council on Friday, at BRAF’s request, to pull the item.

    The issue had simply become too divisive,” Duke says. “I made the call to pull the plug after talking to (BRAF Executive Vice President) John Spain.”

    Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker, who also chairs the Planning Commission, says she was notified of the withdrawal request late last week, and thinks it’s unfortunate.

    “In light of all the divisiveness and conversation, they decided to withdraw,” Wicker says. “I think they are moving forward with hiring an executive director, the coordination of services and getting things to where they need to go … but we, as a council, won’t have an opportunity to give input on that.”

    BRAF did not return several calls and emails seeking comment as of this afternoon’s deadline.

    As a practical matter, Friday’s decision will not impact the creation of the health district, which is not a taxing district or governmental entity, Duke says.

    “Its withdrawal has no effect on the ability of the hospitals to work together,” he says. “The organization the hospitals created to coordinate their efforts will continue and has the same ability to pursue grants as any other similar organization.”

    In late 2015, after months of study and planning, BRAF unveiled plans to create a unified health district along the Essen Lane-Bluebonnet Boulevard corridor, where two major hospitals, the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, and dozens of clinics and providers are located. The idea was first outlined in the city’s FuturEBR master plan and was largely seen as an economic development concept that would benefit the entire Capital Region.

    Portland, Oregon-based planner John Fregonese, who drafted FuturEBR, says while it’s true the council does not have to give the health district its blessing in order for the area to exist on maps or signs, having the district officially labeled would make it easier to brand and promote to the world.

    “Not adopting this measure doesn’t stop the health district, but it doesn’t help it either,” Fregonese says. “This is something that puts Baton Rouge on the map nationally and internationally, and this is going to help the entire parish.”

    —Stephanie Riegel

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