Open Letter to Authement: Kill the Deal

by Leslie Turk

It's been two months since The Independent Weekly first uncovered the UL Lafayette horse farm deal; since that time, the proposed land swap has created such a stench that it's time to clear the air. With the attempt to rezone the horse farm from residential to commercial property facing overwhelming obstacles ' the Lafayette Zoning Commission denied the request on Monday ' and new details of the proposed agreement coming to light, UL President Ray Authement should abandon the exchange immediately and pray that residents have a short memory. We urge him to let the open market decide what the horse farm is worth, talk with Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel about an exchange for Youth Park near campus or entertain other alternatives to this ill-conceived and poorly negotiated exchange. In its current state, the proposed deal smacks of cronyism, is inequitable to the university and taxpayers and threatens to destroy Authement's otherwise solid reputation for doing what's right for UL and the community. Seventy-seven-year-old Authement is tarnishing his three decades-long tenure at the university with this controversy.

Authement maintains he needs property to expand his campus, but there are numerous reasons for him to back away from ever acquiring attorney Jimmy Davidson's 4-acre Girard Park property in exchange for a portion of the undeveloped Johnston Street horse farm. First, the land and two homes are not worth $3.25 million or $18.20 per square foot, the value placed on the site by local appraiser George Parker ' Davidson's close friend and longtime business associate. And the 36 acres of the 100-acre horse farm are worth much more than the appraised $3.25 million; the back portion, which the university plans to sell later for upscale residential development, is also more valuable than the appraised price. The rear portion (67.5 acres) was valued by appraiser Russ Wilson at about $45,000 per acre or $1.03 per square foot, far below what the market has dictated. Health club owner Red Lerille, who over the years has purchased acreage in that area to expand his club, believes it is worth about $300,000 per acre, or $6.88 per square foot. Lerille once paid as high as $800,000 per acre ' $18.36 per square foot ' for property there.

But there are other compelling reasons to question the wisdom of purchasing the Davidson property. Davidson listed his office address when applying for a certificate of occupancy for a plastics injection molding company that began operating in his back yard ' in a single-family residential zone ' sometime in the late 1980s to early 1990s. Well disguised from neighbors by surrounding brush, ASH Industries, owned by Davidson's son-in-law Hartie Spence, operated under the radar long enough to be grandfathered into local zoning ordinances. In 1998, during Davidson's unsuccessful attempt to rezone the property, neighbors learned of a commercial operation in his back yard, but it was not until Oct. 19 that many of them discovered that it was a plastics manufacturing business from an Independent story.

Dubious property values and unanswered environmental questions in this deal aren't the only areas where the university is failing to protect its interests. In legal documents that address all aspects of the transaction, BRE-ARD LLC, whose principals are Dan Menard (a well-known political operative close to former City-Parish President Walter Comeaux) and Jerry Brents (member emeritus of the UL Foundation's board of trustees), will buy the Davidson land and exchange it for the horse farm acreage. BRE-ARD agrees to let Davidson retain all mineral rights, which means he will keep them even after the university takes possession. Those same documents reveal that the university has done little to protect itself from potential problems with the property. UL is agreeing to take over the Davidson property "as is" and releases BRE-ARD and all previous owners "from any and all claims for any vices or defects in said property, whether obvious or latent, known or unknown, easily discoverable or hidden." Louisiana redhibition law enables real estate buyers to hold previous owners responsible for hidden defects in the property, but the university is waiving that right in this case. "[The university] further acknowledges that this provision has been called to its attention and explained fully," according to the exchange agreement.

That stipulation comes as quite a shock to Lafayette environmental scientist Ernie Franz, who reviewed the Phase I environmental assessment required by the Board of Supervisors for the UL System, the entity that approved the proposed land exchange in August. The Phase I report fails to fully address some basic questions about storage of hazardous materials and the use of the swimming pool as a cooling facility in the manufacturing process. The scientist believes additional assessment is needed in light of the university waiving its rights to hold Davidson or BRE-ARD responsible for problems down the road. "They should automatically do a Phase II and an extensive one," Franz says. "For them to sign that without doing a Phase II is ludicrous."

It gets worse. The agreement further allows Davidson and his family members ' and it appears ASH Industries ' to continue to inhabit the property for at least two years after the exchange is completed. This agreement appears to be a violation of rules set forth by the Board of Supervisors, which requires public bid for any lease of university land in excess of 5,000 square feet. "[Authement] never disclosed that the university can't do anything with this property for at least two years because it's tied up with a free lease to the Davidsons," says Lafayette attorney Maureen Sullivan, who has reviewed the legal documents associated with the exchange.

Though it is not spelled out in any of the documents, Authement acknowledged for the first time in media reports last weekend that Davidson plans after the sale to make a sizeable donation to the UL Foundation to establish 2.5 professorships, a gesture that does little to address the pitfalls of this exchange.

For now, Davidson and ASH Industries have some questions to answer. Proving ASH Industries expanded over the years, a clear violation of the local ordinance that protects his non-conforming zoning, may be difficult. However, Davidson, a prominent attorney in this community and also a member of the UL Foundation's board of trustees, is now defending this furtive operation for the first time.

Thanks in large part to the activism of local residents, Davidson has in recent weeks hosted several unexpected visitors: the Lafayette Parish Tax Assessor's office, Lafayette Consolidated Government's zoning department and the state Department of Environmental Quality, which plans to conduct more comprehensive monitoring on the site.

Tax Assessor Conrad Comeaux's office found that Davidson has not been paying property tax on three metal buildings on the premises, totaling 8,260 square feet and valued at $55,000. Comeaux says property taxes were paid on other commercial structures at the site and that these three could have been missed due to a lack of construction permits. He is filing a change order to the business' property taxes for 2002-2005 by retroactively tacking on about $2,400 in parish and city taxes.

Zoning officials conducted their own visit last Friday, and Eleanor Bouy, director of Planning, Zoning & Codes, is seeking the opinion of legal counsel in evaluating whether construction permits and other requirements are in order. "They weren't glad to see us at all," Bouy says. She says Davidson's attorney, Glenn Edwards, insists ASH's use of the swimming pool doesn't constitute an expansion because it has been used for that purpose since the business' inception. Though Bouy visited the site in the 1990s before she was director (to investigate and subsequently evict another business operating at the residence), she has insisted for several months that her hands are tied because of the ordinance that protects these types of businesses. "The law is not going to be on our side to get a lot done out there," says Bouy, who believes ASH has indeed expanded over the years. "He has definitely pushed the envelope in the running of what was once a small operation. He probably grew this business and outgrew this site years ago."

What DEQ will find is anybody's guess.

For residents concerned about ASH's impact on the environment and adjacent businesses it disrupts by driving 18-wheelers through their Oil Center parking lots, officials have shirked their responsibility far too long. Lafayette government should have some controls in place to adequately monitor any type of business that intentionally circumvents zoning laws. While Bouy argues that such measures may affect numerous local businesses, primarily neighborhood bars that have the same non-conforming status, any businesses that either conceal their location or nature of their operations should be heavily scrutinized for potential zoning, code and environmental violations.

As a state-owned institution, the university will not be restricted by zoning ordinances in its use of the Davidson property.

Authement says he desperately needs the Davidson land for faculty housing and other expansion. He insists his home near Martin Hall will eventually be consumed for other university needs, but we implore him to seek better options for his eventual successor's home, including whether it could be constructed near the Alumni Center, which sits on a 5.5-acre tract on East St. Mary Boulevard across from Angelle Hall, arguably an appropriate spot for such a residence. He may also be able to negotiate for a small portion of Girard Park closer to the Alumni Center.

At a Nov. 22 meeting between Authement and concerned residents, Cheryl Perret asked the university president why he had not sought a property exchange with local government for the 8-acre Youth Park off St. Julien Avenue, which adjoins a university parking lot behind the Johnston Street fire station. The rolling landscape has mature live oaks and is defined by a single-family residential community and a coulee that separates it from the university's cluttered maintenance facility, an eyesore in dire need of modernization or relocation (which could also give the university additional room for expansion). "I've tried to get that three times," said Authement, who when pressed for more information acknowledged the last time he approached local government about his potential interest in the park was under former Mayor Dud Lastrapes' administration. (Lastrapes served from 1980-1992.)

City-Parish President Joey Durel has never been contacted by Authement about an exchange but now hopes for the opportunity, especially in light of the swap that Authement has proposed. "I've been sort of disappointed they haven't come to us to talk about it," Durel says. "I guess the only hope I've had is that the deal fell through and then we could talk to [Authement] about it." He notes how the proposed exchange with BRE-ARD has motivated local residents to take action. "I've never gotten more phone calls on an issue in such a small amount of time ' not even on fiber, and I have not had one phone call saying, 'Please make [the BRE-ARD/UL deal] happen.'"

Durel says turning the horse farm into a jewel of a community park would be a dream come true for a city underserved by this kind of recreational facility ' not to mention how much it would lessen the impact of additional traffic associated with BRE-ARD's still hypothetical 30-acre commercial development on busy Johnston Street. "If the university came to me today, my first phone call would be to the Community Foundation to see if the community can do anything," Durel says. "Why not have a 100-acre park?"

That's the kind of visionary thinking and smart growth that can move Lafayette forward. Ray Authement has exhibited that kind of leadership in the past, and it's not too late for him to reclaim his legacy and prove once again that he has the entire community's best interests at heart.