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MWCA and Three Magnolia Woods Families Sue City Over Its Approval of Mount Hope Plan

Three Magnolia Woods families and the Magnolia Woods Civic Association (MWCA) are jointly suing the City of Baton Rouge/Parish of East Baton Rouge for violating city planning regulations last December when the Planning and Zoning Commission approved revisions to a development plan for Mount Hope that expired more than 10 years ago.

The suit was filed in 19th Judicial Court on April 12 and served on the office of Mayor-President Sharon Weston-Broome in early May.  Attorney Scott Frazier is representing the plaintiffs: three families who reside in separate properties alongside Mount Hope and the MWCA.  The case has been assigned to Judge R. Michael Caldwell, and a preliminary hearing is scheduled June 12.

Mount Hope’s owners are not being sued; however, the plaintiffs asked Judge Caldwell to issue a preliminary injunction to halt all construction activities associated with the development plan until the court rules on the legality of the Planning Commission’s decision.

MWCA members and neighbors are entitled to a fuller description of the issues involved if only to clarify misconceptions that have been circulating.

The MWCA Board voted in March to join the suit to protect the residential character of the neighborhood and challenge the unlawful decision by the Planning Commission that allows Mount Hope’s owners to greatly enlarge the property’s event facilities without conducting the drainage and traffic studies planning regulations mandate for site changes of this magnitude.

If the court rules that the Planning Commission violated city planning ordinances in approving Mount Hope’s revised development plan, Mount Hope’s owners must resubmit their development plan—this time for the full planning review rather than the abbreviated process followed last fall.  The Magnolia Woods neighbors and the MWCA feel that review should include traffic and drainage studies to assess the impact the site changes will have on an already congested Highland Road and on surrounding properties that already contend with slow drainage.  A full review should also culminate in Metro Council review, which was sidestepped last fall.

The MWCA included an information sheet on a potential suit in a 2017 membership mailing conducted in February, and issues of party noise at Mount Hope have been discussed on Nextdoor.  MWCA members and neighbors are entitled to a fuller description of the issues involved if only to clarify misconceptions that have been circulating.

Development at Mount Hope

As recently as 2000, Mount Hope was zoned A1 residential.  It is still entirely surrounded by A1 residential (i.e., single-family) properties.  That year, the Planning Commission granted Small Planned Unit Development (SPUD) status to the property so its then owners could operate bed and breakfast accommodations in the historic home and construct a 2,400 square foot reception facility in roughly the center of the four-acre tract. The 2000 SPUD development plan was negotiated with neighbors and specified that the reception facility be styled as a raised cottage in keeping with the style of the plantation home.

City planning regulations (i.e., the Unified Development Code or UDC) allow property owners three years from the time their plan is approved to implement the plan.  They are entitled to one three-year extension if necessary to complete construction.  None of the facilities outlined in the 2000 development plan were built during that six-year window of opportunity, thereby invalidating the plan (See UDC Section 8.216).

Mount Hope changed hands several times in subsequent years.  The current owners (who purchased the property in 2014) revised the expired 2000 plan and submitted it to the Planning Commission last fall for approval.  More specifically, they

  1. Replaced the 2,400-square foot, raised-cottage reception hall with an 8,000-square foot event hall styled as a barn. They also shifted it from the middle of the property to the far northwest corner, 35-feet from the property lines with neighbors on Albert Hart and Maxine. The original building was limited to a height of 29 feet, but the proposed building stands 53 feet tall.
  2. Added a combination garage/service building, four bed and breakfast cottages, a formal circular drive, and sidewalks and service drives.

Comparison of Mt Hope Event Barn and typical home

This drawing compares a side view of the planned event hall alongside a home similar in size to neighboring homes on Albert Hart, Maxine, and Bontura Court. The drawings are to scale to illustrate that the new entertainment facility will dwarf surrounding homes.According to the UDC, alterations of the magnitude intended at Mount Hope constitute a “Major Site Change” and necessitate a drainage study to determine what impact the addition of so much hardscape will have on drainage.  Because the new construction significantly enlarges event capacity at Mount Hope, the UDC specifies that a traffic study should be conducted to ensure traffic isn’t impeded on an already heavy-traveled Highland Road. (Mount Hope has only one entrance/exit).  The Planning Commission waived both drainage and traffic studies

The studies were waived because the Planning staff wrongly believed that the 2000 development plan had been implemented and did not feel that the differences between the 2000 plan and the construction requested in 2016 were sufficient to trigger the studies.  Had staff recognized that the 2000 plan had expired, the changes to Mount Hope’s development plan would have required Metro Council approval, as well.

Neighborhood Concerns

The MWCA has a longstanding commitment to preserve the residential character of the neighborhood by opposing commercial development that disrupts the quiet atmosphere of this traditional family-oriented community.  In 2011, the association stood behind Kimbro residents when they blocked Sammy’s Restaurant from violating local deed restrictions.   A year later, the association sided with Staring Lane residents when the Staring Lane expansion reduced the value of their homes.

Most would agree however that property owners have the right to expect a degree of quiet and privacy in their own homes.  Neighbors who have posted on Nextdoor, protesting amplified music and other party noise emanating from Mount Hope, have sometimes been derided by other Nextdoor members who say they enjoy the music.  Unfortunately, music that is entertaining at a distance is less tolerable—and totally unavoidable—when it comes from right across the fence.  Loud music, announcements over a public address system, cat calls from parking lot revelers, and other party noise has already forced one family to relocate and another owner has announced his intention to put his home on the market.

No one—the MWCA, its fellow plaintiffs, or the 150 residents who signed petitions last fall opposing the development plan–harbors ill will toward Mount Hope’s owners.  The neighborhood stands on the old plantation estate, and many residents have longstanding friendships with former owners or have visited Mount Hope.

When the current owners submitted their revised development plan to the Planning Commission last fall, neighbors and MWCA Board members asked them to compromise on the size of the event hall or at least set it further back from the property lines.  Unlike Mount Hope’s 2000 owners, they were unwilling to compromise on the issues neighbors considered most important.  Instead, they pointed out that they have a business to run.

Many Magnolia Woods residents have since wondered whether a largescale catering and event business belongs in the middle of an established community zoned A1 residential, on property that is not zoned commercial.  Time—and the judge’s ruling—will tell.

For further information on Planning and Zoning in Baton Rouge, visit the Planning Commission page on the Baton Rouge City Government website.

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