Supporters of Watson incorporation keep eye on Legislature

Leaders of the effort to incorporate Watson said Monday that they are keeping a watchful eye on a bill headed to the House floor that would seek to put a two-year moratorium on incorporations.

Senate Bill 674, sponsored by Sen. Ben Nevers, would prevent any unincorporated area from petitioning for incorporation until 2016 unless the petition was initiated before Jan. 1 and gathered enough signatures to place the issue on the Nov. 4 ballot.

The bill is carrying an amendment that would exempt Livingston Parish, but Watson organizers say anything is possible once the bill reaches the House floor, which is expected to happen late this week or early next week.

The petition to incorporate the community of Watson began in April 2013, and has gained more than 2,000 verifiable signatures, Neighbors in Action member Darla Steagall said.

The group held a meeting Monday to update the nearly 75 residents in attendance on the status of the petition drive.

The group needs signatures from 25 percent of the proposed city’s registered voters — about 3,500 signatures — for the issue to make it to the ballot.

The Watson petition quickly gained nearly half the needed signatures, but the effort lagged in recent months following the deaths of three organizers’ family members and the loss of one of the group’s most visible signature sites, Steagall said.

Now that the petition drive is underway again, Steagall said, Watson has three reasons to hope that SB674 will not stall the community’s efforts: the exemption for Livingston Parish, a possible veto by Gov. Bobby Jindal and the threat of lawsuits if the bill becomes law.

“This is a purely political act to stop St. George. It really had nothing to do with us or anyone else trying to incorporate,” Steagall said.

St. George is an effort underway in East Baton Rouge Parish to incorporate a large area in the southern portion of the parish into the city of St. George.

Fellow petition organizer Bob Watts agreed, saying, “I’ve never seen such an openly political attempt to circumvent the public’s right to a vote.”

Incorporation petitions should not be required to meet a time limit, Watts said.

Steagall said she feels a lot of compassion for the people of St. George.

“They want what we already have and want to protect, which is good schools,” Steagall said, referring to the Live Oak schools.

The proposed city of Watson would have the same boundaries as the Live Oak school district.

“They wish they had done this 10 years ago. We don’t want to be wishing 10 years from now that we had done it,” Steagall said.

Steagall said Watson and St. George also have a common opponent: Mayor-President Kip Holden.

“Kip doesn’t want Watson to incorporate because of his northern bypass,” Steagall said. “If we’re not a municipality, we don’t have a voice to stop it.”

The plan for a Baton Rouge Loop is still alive, petition organizer Gene Baker said, and all roads lead through Watson.

Watson organizers say preserving the community and influencing the direction of its inevitable growth are among the top reasons for supporting incorporation.

Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen.