Business News

On the Line

by Walter Pierce

Supporters of redrawing the Lafayette-Vermilion parish border say accuracy is at stake. And maybe a little tax revenue.

By Walter Pierce
Oct. 15, 2013

In 2004 landman Don Bertrand was headed south on Hwy. 167 to the Vermilion Parish courthouse in Abbeville as he often did to research titles and deeds. But something caught his eye this time as he neared Maurice: the green DOTD sign indicating motorists had entered Vermilion Parish seemed to have moved north - not by much, but he passed it sooner than he was accustomed to.

Don Bertrand

Bertrand's curiosity steered his car into the nearest driveway where he asked the residents about it. They told him some workers had come, spray-painted "PL" on the spot to mark the parish line and the sign soon followed.

Thus was born what can only be characterized as a very intense hobby for Bertrand, who was elected to the Lafayette City-Parish Council in 2007 and has, since that day in 2004, undertaken a personal investigation into the Lafayette-Vermilion border that has had him digging through archives from the Library of Congress, the Louisiana State Land Office and parish courthouses. His conclusion: The border, re-established in 2002 and agreed on the next year by a previous Lafayette council, is inaccurate.

"It's not the boundary according to the 1844 legislative act," Bertrand says, referring to the time when a much larger Lafayette Parish that extended south to Vermilion Bay was split in two by an act of the Legislature, creating present-day Lafayette - the smallest parish, geographically, in the state - and Vermilion parishes.

Soon after confirming his suspicion that the border was inaccurate, Bertrand brought his theory to Lafayette Parish Assessor Conrad Comeaux. Assessors, more than landmen, must stay on top of such things because they're in charge of determining property taxes. Parish boundary lines are vitally important.

"When this all came up it was brought to my attention that - and this is back in 2004 - the investigation of where the line should be set failed to take into account evidence from prior to the 1900s," Comeaux recalls. "When you try to determine where the property boundary is, you have to go back to the beginning of when that property boundary was created, and so, that wasn't done.

"The reason it's important to me is I'm supposed to map all the land that's in Lafayette Parish. Prior to me taking office there were zero maps in Lafayette Parish of parcels and where those parcels were. So when we started mapping we started down in that Vermilion Parish area and what we found was just amazing. In some place it looked like a checkerboard. You would have a stack of parcels going south to north, and in that stack one was being assessed in Vermilion and one was being assessed in Lafayette. Next one Vermilion. Next one Lafayette."

Photo by Robin May

Conrad Comeaux

The dispute over the exact location of the parish line probably wouldn't be a dispute at all but for some late 20th century political jockeying - 1999 to be exact - when then-incumbent Lafayette Councilman Lenwood Broussard challenged opponent Linda Duhon's candidacy based on residency. Duhon had been voting and paying taxes in Lafayette Parish for years, but a district court judge ruled that, in fact, she had been living in Vermilion Parish the whole time. The ruling disqualified Duhon for the Lafayette election. It also galvanized Duhon who theretofore had (for all intents and purposes) been a Lafayette Parish resident to file a federal lawsuit challenging the location of the border. That suit against the State Land Office is still pending.

Not long after the Broussard-Duhon fracas, Vermilion and Lafayette parishes agreed to settle the boundary between them. Surveyors were hired. But, according to Bertrand, they relied on a 70-year-old survey that was also incorrect. Conducted around 1930 by surveyor Merrill Bernard, the boundary was based on starting points that, Bertrand contends, are demonstrably wrong and do not comport with the 1844 boundary. But the surveyors contracted by Lafayette and Vermilion more or less used Merrill Bernard's erroneous survey and submitted it to the State Land Office, which in turn presented its "findings" to the parishes.

"As I understand it they did no research," Bertrand says of the 2002 survey, which the Lafayette council nonetheless accepted via ordinance in 2003.

Bertrand's investigation has had more twists and turns than an M. Night Shyamalan movie, although he hopes it won't have a surprise ending. "We're going to try and do this like gentlemen," he says.

Now that he's on the council, Bertrand can legislate his conviction that the boundary is wrong, and he's gotten seven of the other eight council members to sign on as co-authors of an ordinance rescinding the 2003 ordinance agreeing to the current parish line. It was approved as an introductory ordinance on Oct. 1 and will be voted on for final passage Oct. 15 (after this issue of ABiz has gone to press).

There are actually two sections of the border in dispute, according to Bertrand: one on the west side of the Vermilion River and the other on the east side. "It would affect where people pay their taxes. It would affect where kids go to school; where federal dollars go to schools. What roads and infrastructure fall underneath the jurisdiction of what parish," Bertrand says.

According to Comeaux, who agrees with Bertrand that the border is inaccurate and needs to be fixed, correcting the inaccuracies wouldn't mean a windfall in new tax revenue for Lafayette Parish. According to the assessor's calculations, mending the west and east borders would only result in a net gain of about 300 acres for Lafayette, and most of that is assessed as agricultural land, which is taxed very low relative to residential and commercial property.

The blue line running diagonally through the center of the map represents the current Lafayette-Vermilion parish line west of the Vermilion River; the white line, according to Lafayette City-Parish Councilman Don Bertrand, represents the true parish line.

But, Bertrand notes, a lot of that open land could one day be home to commercial/industrial ventures that do bring in higher property taxes, not to mention potential sales taxes: "It's not just what's there today; it's what's there down the road."

"My interest in this is not [tax revenue]; my interest in most of what I do in my office is correctness - what is correct," says Comeaux. "And it's painfully obvious that this was not done correctly."

So how in the first place, if the border between Lafayette and Vermilion parishes was established in 1844 when the state split Lafayette into two parishes, did the line get lost? For starters, says Bertrand, there was a little interruption in the 1860s: "No. 1 was the Civil War. A lot of the Union troops came through, and they took the maps."

Bertrand uses old archival maps like the one above for his research.

Another problem was, to a lesser extent, some early political mapping was done based on landmarks - a coulee that might have dried up, and patch of trees long since dead or felled to clear a pasture - that no longer exist. But, Bertrand says, the original 1844 boundary map was unearthed at the State Land Office in Baton Rouge and in 2006, using a forensic surveyor hired by Comeaux's office - that is, a surveyor who specializes in determining lost boundaries through not only longitude/latitude coordinates but musty, yellowed maps packed away in archives - the 1844 parish line can be determined with accuracy.

"This evidence has never been allowed to be produced - either in court or in front of the council or in front of the public," Bertrand says.

"And my question is why are willing to give away property in the smallest parish in Louisiana if we can show [the parish line] should be according to the legislative act of 1844? The contention was that that boundary couldn't be determined, and we have evidence to show that it can be, but you have to go back all the way to the original Land Office surveys before the legislative act."

Exacerbating the problem of determining the actual parish line was also, simply, human nature: "Urban legend has it - and this is strictly urban legend; I don't know where the truth lies - in the old days if you wanted your kids to go to school in Lafayette, well, file the deed [for your property] in Lafayette Parish. If you wanted them to go to school in Vermilion Parish, file the deed in Vermilion Parish," Comeaux says. "So, how could an assessor know where in the world that property was? He didn't. Therefore, if the deed was filed in Lafayette, you got assessed in Lafayette."

It's a messy business, determining what property belongs in what political subdivision and who taxes whom. And, according to Comeaux, it's not exclusive to the parish line between Lafayette and Vermilion.

"You talk about a bloody mess," the assessor says. "Go to the city-parish government of Lafayette and ask them for an official parish map. Then drive down the road to New Iberia and ask the Iberia Parish Public Works Department for an official map of Iberia Parish.

And you come back and you tell me. The line between Iberia, St. Martin and Lafayette Parish on [Lafayette's] map is a straight line. Iberia Parish's is not a straight line."