Few requests to modify overlay districts granted in recent history

If a proposed modification to the Old Hammond Highway Overlay District allowing for the development of a controversial Murphy Oil gas station secures Metro Council approval later this month, it would join just a few other cases where properties have successfully been removed from one of the parish’s 10 overlay districts in recent years.

“It doesn’t happen often, but it’s probably happened three or four times that I’m aware of in the past few years,” says interim planning director Ryan Holcomb, whose department prepared staff reports for such cases and recommended the Planning Commission and Metro Council approve the Old Hammond Highway case. “In all cases, it’s been driven by either property owners or businesses attempting to locate in those areas.”

Holcomb points to two specific examples, both of which occurred within the past five years. 

One occurred when some neighborhoods and small businesses located along an entire segment of a block in the urban design overlay district shared by the North Gate area and Old South Baton Rouge requested the district’s boundaries be redrawn to exclude them from it, citing problematic development codes. Their request was ultimately granted.

For similar reasons, a few different businesses and property owners also requested to be removed from the Florida Boulevard Overlay District, which passed through the Planning Commission and Metro Council as well.

When preparing a staff report, Holcomb says the planning department takes several factors into consideration and each request is handled on a case-by-case basis.

The department recommended the commission approve the Murphy Oil developer’s request to effectively rezone the Old Hammond Highway property because the case was particularly unique in two respects, Holcomb says. 

For starters, there’s already an “existing legal nonconforming use” on the property—a used car lot—that, because it was legally established, would be allowed to continue operating, even though the overlay district prohibits used car sales. Moreover, the case is tied to an ISPUD development for the gas station, ensuring that what’s shown in Murphy Oil’s plans is exactly what would be allowed there.

“That use is found, in zoning districts, to be a more intense use than gas stations,” Holcomb says. “But because it was a legally established use, not only could motor vehicle sales continue to operate on that site even though the overlay district prohibited it, but there could also be a gas station there because that’s viewed as a less intense use.”

Residents originally backed the idea of an Old Hammond Highway Overlay District in 2010 in order to protect property values and have more of a say over what kind of development was permitted there. Overlay district rules were amended in 2015 to “strictly prohibit” the development of gas stations, which residents worry will bring down property values and introduce increased traffic congestion, blight and lighting and drainage issues, among other problems.

After voting in August to defer the matter for 60 days, the Metro Council will decide on whether to effectively rezone the Old Hammond Highway site at its Oct. 21 meeting.