Cover Story

Land Grab

by Walter Pierce

Written by Walter Pierce
Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The parish's small towns are hemming in the city of Lafayette, threatening to diminish our influence and hamper our growth.

About two weeks ago the letters started arriving in the mailboxes of residents who own land along the stretch of the Ambassador Caffery South extension between Verot School Road and the Broussard city limits a few miles to the east.

Written by Walter Pierce
Wednesday, 7 April 2010

About two weeks ago the letters started arriving in the mailboxes of residents who own land along the stretch of the Ambassador Caffery South extension between Verot School Road and the Broussard city limits a few miles to the east.

"You may not be aware that there is an attempt by the City of Broussard to annex your unincorporated property," the March 18 letter opens. It goes on to spell out the numerous benefits accrued when a property owner chooses to become part of the city of Lafayette. Among them: lower property insurance rates due to Lafayette's low (read, good) fire rating; better law enforcement protection; higher property values; better sewer services; LUS fiber; and zoning and land-use protections.

The letter is signed, "Sincerely, Joey Durel, Lafayette City-Parish President." Durel urges the property owners to "get all the facts."

The timing of Durel's letter is not coincidental; a week after it was mailed, half of the six-mile Ambassador extension between Verot and U.S. 90 opened for traffic, all of it within the city limits of Broussard, most of it cutting through undeveloped land. But the other half, which also slices through the little bit of wild country remaining in our urbanized parish - land that is currently unincorporated between the Youngsville highway and Verot - is scheduled to open this month.

That roughly six-mile stretch of Ambassador Caffery is about to become a golden goose for the landowners who will command top dollar for what is now mostly pasture (some are already asking $600,000 per acre), and for any municipality that can convince those landowners along the unincorporated stretch to be annexed, because in a decade or so the Ambassador extension will be lined with shopping centers and other commercial interests that will generate millions of dollars in sales taxes annually. So, like Sooners queuing up to rush into the Oklahoma territory, Broussard, Lafayette and Youngsville are twitching to stake their claim on Ambassador South.

Annexation is happening all over Lafayette Parish on a routine basis; it is the means by which the smaller towns especially have grown geographically and obtained lucrative commercial corridors that generate sales taxes. Duson annexed west into Acadia Parish and tapped into the truck stop casinos that proliferated along Interstate 10 after Lafayette Parish voters outlawed gaming; Broussard has annexed south and east into St. Martin Parish to secure revenue generated along U.S. 90.

But with growth in Lafayette Parish being overwhelming to the south before and especially since consolidation, elbow room among Lafayette, Broussard and Youngsville has shrunk, and when elbow room shrinks, elbows are thrown.

LCG's proposed annexation map would
leave none of the Lafayette Parish unincorporated.
Darker shades show existing corporate limits;
corresponding lighter shades show proposed annexations.

"It's a land grab is what it is," Durel says of overtures Broussard Mayor Charles Langlinais made to those landowners along Ambassador South. The Durel administration has reason to be wary of Langlinais, who has become the poster child for aggressive annexation during his two decades in office.

Langlinais makes no secret that Broussard has grown from a hamlet to a bustling small city during his tenure; it is a point of pride. The budget for the city when Langlinais was first elected was $600,000; today Broussard's budget runs about $14 million, and much of that growth has been propelled by the city annexing along U.S. 90 as businesses locate there.

"In infuriates me when [Durel] suggests this," Langlinais says when the term "land grab" is mentioned. "It's not a land grab. Sh--, we're just responding to our constituents. He's not responding to any constituents here."

Langlinais disputes any suggestion that he has his eye on extending Broussard's corporate limits along Ambassador South all the way to Verot, but says given their druthers residents in unincorporated Lafayette would much rather be with the small towns. "People in the rural parts of the parish, they don't identify with Lafayette," Langlinais insists. "Lafayette throws up road blocks to development."

Lafayette's Planning, Zoning & Codes Department - the land-use restrictions and building codes division known as Metro Code before consolidation - has long been a selling point for the small towns, most of whom until recently had no zoning restrictions and, their argument went, offered more freedom for land owners to do as they pleased with their property.

"Their bureaucracy is overwhelming," Langlinais says about LCG. "If you have a building, the first thing you get is your state fire marshal approval before you can get your permit, and that's standard everywhere. Broussard, you bring the fire marshal approval, you get your permit; city of Lafayette, a whole new level of fire marshal review. Consequently more cost."

Durel counters that zoning restrictions equate to higher property values: "Zoning is one of those things that make it sound like you're going to have all these restrictions from the city," he says. "But when you build that $200,000 house or that $2 million house, you have much less chance that somebody's going to put a pipe yard next to you."

"In Lafayette Parish," Durel adds, "your property is worth more in the city of Lafayette than if it's not in the city of Lafayette - that's just a fact. And one of the reasons that your property is worth more in the city of Lafayette is because of higher standards."

Property value is generally only meaningful to home or business owners when they're ready to the sell the property or when they're ready to die; it's like a natural resource - of little worth until it's extracted. But there's no denying that Lafayette's higher standards push some development into unincorporated parts of the parish or the nearby small towns. (Carencro recently adopted a land-use ordinance, and Broussard has a comprehensive zoning ordinance that's been in place for about six months and will be applied first to the new stretch of Ambassador South.)

Yet zoning, too, cuts both ways. The city-parish council routinely hears appeals of plat approvals by Planning, Zoning & Codes from homeowners in unincorporated parts of the parish who are happy to live beyond the reach of the department so long as a developer doesn't want to put a trailer park in their backyard. A group of residents in a subdivision in unincorporated north Lafayette Parish last week successfully appealed PZC approval of a low-income development for mobile homes and manufactured homes adjacent to their subdivision. "To me that's been one of the most eye-opening and interesting things that I've witnessed since I've been in office that I never paid that close attention to," Durel observes, "and that is people have moved out into the country to escape the government regulation; [then] they beg for government regulation when suddenly somebody's putting something that they don't want right next door to them."

Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel

Annexing land isn't just a matter of a city drafting an ordinance and assuming ownership of the area; there are strict state laws that govern the process. Annexations must be contiguous with a city's corporate limits, and cities must, if challenged, be able to give a reasonable account of why the annexation is necessary. According to Assistant City-Parish Attorney Mike Hebert, LCG's annexation expert, a majority of registered voters in an area proposed for annexation along with a majority of the area's property owners must agree to be annexed into a municipality.

"Another litmus test is your ability to be able to provide services," offers LCG Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley. "It's hard to argue that it's a land grab if you have the capacity, the finances and the ability to be able to provide the services to the people that you're annexing."

Until the mid 1980s it was easier for Lafayette to grow through annexation, in part because Lafayette's zoning laws were not as layered and nuanced as they are today.

But many point to a single thing Lafayette was in sole possession of that made annexation into Lafayette attractive: LUS, and LUS water in particular. In addition to reliable electric and sewer services provided by LUS, Lafayette has long had safe, clean municipal water. Real estate developers in unincorporated parts of the parish knew their new ranch houses would be much more salable if clear water were running from the taps. Annexation into the city of Lafayette was good business. But in the mid 1980s that changed.

"We gave our water away," Durel says flatly, referring to an agreement Lafayette made pre-consolidation with the city of Scott first and then with Lafayette Parish Waterworks District North, which serves unincorporated parts of the parish, to provide LUS water. The carrot that Lafayette once dangled to lure in development outside the city limits was gone.

With LUS water came better water pressure and fire hydrants, which meant a lower fire rating and the lower insurance rates that go along with it. "There was a time where the fire rating in the parish was about a 10 and we're a 2 now," Durel adds. "If you annexed into the city at that time your property taxes went up a little bit, but your insurance rates came down an equivalent amount. But now, since we've done so much with Lafayette water outside of Lafayette, that's contributed to fire ratings going down [outside the city of Lafayette]. Your insurance rates will still come down [if annexed by Lafayette], but not as drastically as they once did."

This diminished incentive to be annexed by Lafayette wasn't lost on the city. Lafayette Mayor Kenny Bowen - the last mayor of the city before consolidation took effect - tried to remedy it. "Kenny did not want to provide additional water outside the city," recalls LUS Director Terry Huval, who was hired a year and a half before the end of Bowen's final term in office, "and [he] actually wanted to shut off providing water if we could have legally, but we couldn't; we had a contract with both the Waterworks District North and the city of Scott."

Broussard Mayor Charles Langlinais

When Bowen left office and Walter Comeaux - the former Lafayette Parish President and Broussard resident whose affinities were clearly rural - took office as the first city-parish president, the spigot really opened. LCG entered into contracts with Waterworks District South, with the Milton Water Districts and with the towns of Broussard and Youngsville. Huval estimates that today upwards of 80 percent of the residents in Lafayette Parish drink, cook, water their lawns, wash their clothes and bathe with LUS water.

And those contracts are long-term. Construction of the water-supply infrastructure for the rural water districts was funded through the issuance of bonds, and, says Huval, the Rural Utilities Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wanted the contracts between Lafayette and the rural water districts to be consistent with the length of the bonds, in some cases 40 years. LUS' contract with Waterworks District North, for example, doesn't expire until 2032; the Youngsville contract extends until 2038.

The first Lafayette City-Parish Council, which came into office in 1996, tried to mitigate the water issue through an ordinance that raised utility rates of LUS customers outside the city; non-city LUS customers pay modestly higher rates for sewer and electric, according to a fee schedule provided by LUS, but they pay double for water.

Yet Huval says the higher rate for water outside the city wasn't necessarily incentive to be annexed by Lafayette. "Having a beautiful home outside the city, to have brown water flowing from the faucets was not acceptable. But as soon as the water was clean, then it was acceptable and the [high] price really didn't matter," he says. "If the rates were double or the rates were triple, it really didn't matter."

The idea shared among many city people that we gave away the annexation carrot by giving away our water has been leavened by a dark powder: Walter Comeaux's fidelity with rural Lafayette Parish. Comeaux, the conspiracy theory goes, was a rural guy; he didn't mind sticking it to big, bad Lafayette. But Huval qualifies that view: "Once consolidation took place there was a spirit of consolidation in the air; it was like we ought to all be working together, and it shouldn't be city versus parish," he recalls. "Walter's perspective on it as far as annexation, I remember him telling me that he didn't want us to be holding water over a residential customer's head to get them to annex into the city. What he thought we should do is to offer our services - to say, Here's the things we can provide,' and try to market ourselves to those entities that want to get annexed into the city. Now, I'm not in charge of annexation, but that was the general game plan that he had out there, that he was recommending."

Tax Assessor Conrad Comeaux, a former member of the Lafayette Parish Council, insists the city of Lafayette needs to find a new annexation incentive. "We all agree that the carrot has been removed for annexation, the carrot being water," he says. "OK. Let's come up with another carrot."

Comeaux suggests the city of Lafayette offer to pay half the costs of a new subdivision or commercial development outside the city limits, provided the development becomes part of Lafayette. Ultimately, the argument goes, the city will recoup the costs through both property and sales taxes.

Comeaux is skeptical that a consolidated council would countenance such an idea (he is an ardent supporter of deconsolidation), although Durel isn't exactly put off by it. "I can't say it's come up a whole lot," Durel says. "That's just not how it's been done traditionally."

There still remain pockets of unincorporated parish within the municipalities. People living in those that are completely within the city limits of Lafayette pay no Lafayette property tax. No complaints from them. But for Marguerite Fitzgerald, being in an unincorporated island is frustrating. Fitzgerald lives in Shenandoah Estates, a tidy middle class subdivision of about 225 homes near Bayou Tortue Road that is completely surrounded by the city of Broussard.

Shenandoah residents, who get their water through a private, state-regulated utility company - Total Environmental Solutions Inc. - have long lobbied the city of Broussard for annexation. They want better water, Fitzgerald says, and their roads are beginning to show their age as well. But Shenandoah is the responsibility of LCG, and because it's technically a rural parish area, its upkeep must come from the leaner parish budget. And with rural roads and especially bridges in often dangerous shape, Shenandoah isn't high on the to-do list.

"It really kind of leaves us in a precarious position," Fitzgerald says. "We have problems with the water, but it seems like our hands are tied, there's nothing we can do about it. It's frustrating because Broussard kind of sees us as the red-headed stepchild and won't annex us in because there's too many problems."

Langlinais counters that Broussard has agreed to sell water to TESI, and that the Shenandoah residents' complaints should be directed at consolidated government. "They're being treated as a stepchild by consolidated government," says Langlinais, whose annexation policy is commonly characterized as "cherry picking." "Why isn't consolidated government addressing their water issue? Why isn't consolidated government addressing their sewer issue?"

The tension among the municipalities over annexation is coming to a head. Last night, Tuesday, April 6, the consolidated council voted on four introductory ordinances related to Lafayette annexing areas into the city limits. (The Independent Weekly goes to press Monday afternoon; this story will be updated online with the results of those votes.) Among them is Les Vieux Chenes near Youngsville and Broussard, one of three municipal golf courses in the parish, all of which are maintained through LCG's city-funded Parks & Recreation Department.

"I could have incorporated Vieux Chenes three times in the last two years," Langlinais boasts. "I really looked at the numbers and sales tax paid based on gross receipts; it'd have been worth about $20,000 a year to us." That's a paltry sum for a city with a $14 million budget, but it would have been a sharp slap in LCG's face had Langlinais done it: City of Lafayette parks and recreation money would have been going to the maintenance of a Broussard facility.

LCG also wants to annex the area around Fabacher Field, another LCG-owned recreational facility closer to Broussard and Youngsville than it is to Lafayette. Langlinais says he doesn't have a problem with that.

The city of Lafayette, meanwhile, increasingly feels hemmed in by the small towns. Population growth among the parish's six incorporated entities - Broussard, Carencro, Duson, Lafayette, Scott and Youngsville - is a good barometer of how much more aggressive the small towns, save for Duson, have been compared to Lafayette in their annexation policies. (When asked by an Independent staff member at a recent conference what was going on in Duson, Mayor Susie Lagneaux's response was, "Annexation, annexation, annexation!")

According to LCG figures, since 1974 Lafayette has grown 136 percent in land mass. Duson grew at a comparable rate: 141 percent. Carencro, Scott and Broussard, meanwhile, grew 1,400 to 1,700 percent. And Youngsville since 1974 has grown an astonishing 6,400 percent.

"If you look at what some of the other municipalities have done, they are alarmingly close to sealing off the city's ability on a contiguous nature to annex property," Stanley points out.

But Youngsville's rapid growth has backed it into a fiscal corner. Without an interstate or major U.S. highway traversing it, the city's growth has been overwhelmingly residential; it most resembles a bedroom community of commuters. It occupies an attractive part of the parish, and it has no property tax. Consequently, as Youngsville's residential growth has exploded, its sales tax base has lagged behind, threatening the town's ability to provide services for its residents, a condition Mayor Wilson Viator says is beginning to change with the opening of Chemin Metairie Parkway, which will eventually connect with Highway 90.

Ambassador South, meanwhile, could be a Godsend for Youngsville, albeit one that wouldn't begin paying dividends for years and provided the town can get in on the annexation action.

"What I was told is there was always a gentleman's agreement that a piece of that would be for Youngsville," says Durel, who is Viator's brother-in-law (Viator is married to one of Durel's sisters).

"Not if I can help it," Langlinais says. "They didn't pay anything for it." Broussard provided $10 million in matching funds to get Ambassador Caffery, a state project, all the way to Highway 90. For Mayor Langlinais, Broussard staked a $10 million claim on Ambassador South, and he has no plans of letting Youngsville gallop into the territory.

Viator is content to let Lafayette and Broussard duke it out for the time being. "I'm not saying the [Youngsville] council won't act on something shortly," Viator says. "I know the fight that's going on over there, and we're going to kind of sit back and let the smoke clear."

Trapped in the crossfire between LCG and Broussard is District 7 City-Parish Councilman Don Bertrand, who represents both Broussard and parts of Lafayette. "I'm going to hear it from both directions," Bertrand notes wryly. "I think what's starting to happen here is everyone is starting to meet at the boundary lines."

The tension over annexation comes at a critical time for the city of Lafayette: If we cannot grow our land mass to accommodate a future population increase, we run the very real risk of losing our majority influence on future city-parish councils, hence the recent talk of deconsolidation.

Durel says he's seeking consensus; LCG has drawn up a proposed map for the parish that, in Durel's view, allows every town in the parish to annex commensurate with their current size, leaving nothing unincorporated and up for grabs (see page 8). That would dissipate the tension among the towns, especially between Lafayette and Broussard. It could also head off what is setting up to be another land grab in a few years as the Ambassador North extension cuts through unincorporated Lafayette Parish in proximity to Scott and Carencro.

Langlinais, meanwhile, supports a parishwide proposition that would force the hands of the residents in unincorporated Lafayette Parish: Choose who will annex you or you become part of the city of Lafayette. That sounds magnanimous. But remember, Langlinais believes most rural residents would cast their lot with a small town.

District 2 City-Parish Councilman Jay Castille, who is also chairman of the Council of Governments - the intergovernmental body comprising the mayors of Lafayette's six municipalities - plans to sit everyone down this month and hash it all out. "I'm trying to get them all together to talk about it," Castille says. "I think if this Ambassador thing doesn't blow up too bad with Charlie [Langlinais], we're going to try to sit down and start talking about some annexing."

But the Broussard mayor's enthusiasm for dialogue is waning; Langlinais clearly views LCG - and Durel in particular - as adversaries. "I'm getting less and less interested in having any relationship with consolidated government," he says, "and in particular the administration."