(Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include comments from BREC.)
While many in north Baton Rouge oppose BREC’s proposed relocation of the BREC Baton Rouge Zoo from Baker to Airline Highway in southeast Baton Rouge, arguing it would hurt north Baton Rouge’s struggling economy, some residents of the neighborhoods adjacent to the proposed zoo site don’t like the idea either.
At a meeting Monday night of the Santa Maria Property Owners Association and the Highlands of Santa Maria POA, residents voiced strong concerns about the proposed relocation, according to Metro Council members Chauna Banks and Dwight Hudson, the latter of whom represents the area and helped arrange the meeting between BREC and the neighborhood associations.
BREC has said it favors moving the zoo to its Airline Highway Park, better known as the Fairgrounds, because of the area’s commercial viability and also because BREC already owns the land. The BREC administration is supposed to formally present its proposal to the BREC commission on Thursday, March 22.
In the meantime, the commission has been meeting with key stakeholders and community groups to drum up support for the idea. But it was a tough sell at Monday’s meeting, where residents were concerned about the possibility the zoo might bring increased flooding and greater traffic congestion to their area.
“BREC did make some assurances on the flooding part,” Hudson says. “Their plan is to create additional floodplain storage, but they really could not make any sort of statement about the impact of traffic, especially along Perkins, which was troublesome and rightfully so for a lot of those neighborhoods.”
The Fairgrounds backs up to Santa Maria and partially flooded during the August 2016 flood. BREC has said its plans for the new zoo would involve several flood mitigation measures that would help the area as a whole.
Banks, who says she was told at the door she was not invited to the meeting but went in anyway, says only one person who spoke favored the relocation. The rest opposed it.
“They had a lot of reasons for opposing it,” Banks says. “They talked about how the state fair is only two weeks out of the year and it is a nightmare. They said we don’t need this.”
Hudson agrees with Banks’ characterization of the meeting and says he thinks BREC has put the cart before the horse, focusing on a new location before identifying a funding source.
“I really feel like BREC has approached this whole thing backward,” he says. “They should talk about how they want to fund it before any discussion of where it will move because I don’t think voters of this parish are going to support a tax for a new zoo regardless of where it moves.”
Hudson concedes Banks was initially told she could not attend the meeting, as were members of the media.
“The POAs wanted to be sure the meeting was kept productive and they were concerned with as much of a hot topic as this has been that they would have a bunch of folks from outside their neighborhood wanting to talk about whether the zoo was moving,” he says. “And the goal of the meeting was to talk about how using this site might affect this group of homeowners, so they requested that it be just residents.”
In a statement provided after publication of the original story, BREC says, “As expected, many residents are concerned about the potential for increased risk of flooding in their neighborhood. We were able to show the residents engineering plans that not only go above requirements for a 100-year flood, but utilize best practices in flood mitigation to protect the site as well as the neighborhoods and businesses around it. We listened to their concerns and will process this feedback, along with all of the input we have received on this project, as we prepare to make the best possible recommendation to the BREC Commission for the future of East Baton Rouge Parish, its Zoo, and its residents.”