Riegel: Another Baton Rouge land use controversy

Local land use controversies often speak to larger issues about the way things roll in a city, state or region.

Such is the case with Aztek Cove, a proposed 61,700-square-foot development that would comprise two, 2 1/2-story buildings of office, multifamily and retail space on some 6.4 acres of rurally zoned land on Highland Road near the Country Club of Louisiana. That a commercial project could be approved on rural land is just one of several curiosities that make this parochial story interesting—and troubling—on a broader level.

Aztek Cove is the brainchild of local businessman Nitin Kamath, who received approval in March from the East Baton Rouge Planning Commission staff—the staff part is important here—for his proposed development: A 32,000-square-foot office building,  29,700-square-foot multifamily building with 18 units and ground floor retail space, and more than 250 parking spaces.

Metro Councilman Chandler Loupe caught wind of the project in early May, nearly two months after its approval, and was more than a little alarmed, as were his constituents. The chronically gridlocked, two-lane Highland Road is already overtaxed. Besides, the area is zoned rural and no one in the surrounding neighborhoods had even been informed the project was in the works, much less asked for input.

As it turns out, Kamath was planning to relocate the headquarters of his software companies from Gladstone Avenue, off Bluebonnet Boulevard, to the Highland Road site, and was working with Louisiana Economic Development and the Baton Rouge Area Chamber to qualify for state tax credits, according to what BRAC and LED officials told Loupe.

Kamath is no stranger to LED. He serves on the board of the Louisiana Economic Development Corp., which administers a variety of LED-sponsored small business loans and incentive programs. He is also CEO of DBSysgraph, which describes itself as a software firm specializing in information systems management, and its sister firm, Aztek Gaming, which sells software to tribal casinos around the country.

There are many questions about this project. For one, how was the project approved by Planning Commission staff without any public input?

BRAC and LED decline to comment on the deal, refusing to even acknowledge they are or were working with Kamath. But Loupe says a big economic development announcement about Aztek Cove was planned for some time in May—until he and some neighborhood groups started making noise and asking questions.

There are many questions about this project. For one, how was the project approved by Planning Commission staff without any public input? The answer is the result of a provision in parish law that requires only projects larger than 50,000 square feet to go before the full Planning Commission for a hearing. Projects between 30,000 and 50,000 square feet can be approved by staff and therefore are not subject to public scrutiny at an open meeting.

Which still doesn’t explain how this project, at 61,700 square feet, got around the 50,000-square-foot threshold. The answer there is more disturbing. According to Planning Director Frank Duke, Kamath submitted two separate site plans for his two buildings, each individually less than 50,000 square feet. Though that clearly violates the spirit of the law, it didn’t violate the letter. Duke says Kamath was able to get away with it because his property encompasses five separate lots, which he divided into two- and three-lot parcels to accommodate his two buildings.

Another question centers on why the Planning Commission staff did not reject the site plan(s) due to traffic concerns. Surely a planning organization focused on smart growth would be concerned about additional gridlock on a major, east-west artery that already exceeds capacity?

The answer, Duke says, is that Planning Commission staff is not allowed to evaluate a project in terms of its impact on traffic or surrounding neighborhoods. Staff can only look at whether a project fits within the narrow confines of the zoning code. The traffic impact piece falls to the state and city-parish departments of transportation and drainage, which are supposed to review plans and weigh in if they spot a problem. But Duke says there was nothing in the Aztek Cove file to suggest anyone at City Hall or the DOTD had concerns about dumping 250 additional cars per day onto Highland Road.

Finally, there’s the question of how a commercial project got approved in a rural zoning district. In part, at least, the answer has to do with a technicality that for years allowed commercial development on rural property if, at some point in the past, the property had been used for commercial purposes, which Kamath’s was in 1990s. In 2017, the Metro Council, in a rare moment of unity and level-headedness, did away with this foolish provision. However, the council grandfathered in existing property owners for one year, which is how Kamath got his commerical site plans approved. The grandfather clause expired two weeks later.

For now the project is on hold, perhaps permanently. Because the zoning designation has changed in the months since Kamath received site plan approval, Aztek Cove is no longer a permitted use and the parish attorney’s office has said he should not be granted building permits. All of which
suggests this could wind up in
litigation down the road.

But even if Aztek Cove never gets built, the fact that it got this far raises troubling questions about who’s calling the shots when it comes to planning and development. It also offers insight into why Baton Rouge has so many disconnected, poorly planned developments and why its residents have to suffer with
so much gridlock every day. 

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