JoDu proposes LCG buy horse farm

by Leslie Turk

Now Joey Durel is putting his money (well, our money) where his mouth is.

Since the UL horse farm controversial land-swap deal surfaced nearly six years ago, City-Parish President Joey Durel remained crystal clear on one issue: He wanted the 100-acre tract of pristine Johnston Street land preserved as a community park, one that would offer passive recreation for all of Lafayette Parish and anyone visiting our community. He also hoped to make it home to the city police department's mounted patrol unit, in part to ensure the safety of people in the adjoining neighborhoods.

Now Joey Durel is putting his money (well, our money) where his mouth is. At today's budget briefing, which got under way at 5:30 p.m., Durel proposed that Lafayette Consolidated Government purchase the horse farm in a partial land-swap deal that would give the university the 8-acre Youth Park that adjoins the campus behind the Johnston Street fire station.

The horse farm appraised for $5.7 million last year, and Youth Park in the past was worth about a half million dollars. For this proposed transaction, both properties will have to be reappraised, but local government is looking at paying about $5 million for the land over a 10-year period. The deal calls for creation of a cooperative endeavor agreement that includes a 99-year lease with the Community Foundation of Acadiana, which would raise the money to develop and maintain the park, Durel says.

"It has been said that never before has a promise been kept by the non-profit sector to raise money to build or maintain what will become a passive park' property, requiring the need for additional governmental funds to be spent," Durel wrote in his prepared address to the council. "I contend that CFA will break that trend."

Durel noted that some people may say this is the wrong time to spend money on land as opposed to building roads, especially in light of the economic uncertainty caused by the drilling moratorium. "I contend that there is no bad time to plan and preserve the future of our community. This is a perfect use of tax dollars because everyone in our community will benefit from such a wonderful central park,' and no one should feel responsible for buying' it." He says investing in the park sends a strong message of confidence in the area's future to the private sector, which continues to invest in our community despite the economic uncertainties.

Durel also discussed his vision for the property. "I hope to see community gardens run by experts, perhaps master gardeners, as well as walking and jogging paths along with a bike trail that begins there and ends with the dreams of the Attakapas-Ishak Trail, also linking Girard Park, St. Martin Parish and Vermilion Parish in a remarkable vision."

Saying the plan is similar to one that was announced in May 2009 (which called for an anonymous donor to gift $5.7 million to the CFA, which would raise funds to develop and maintain the park), UL expressed its support in a press release this afternoon. "The latest plan accomplishes what many people, including Save the Horse Farm activists, have requested: a passive park that preserves invaluable green space and is accessible to the public," UL President Joe Savoie said.

The university will place proceeds from the sale of the property in a special restricted land acquisition fund that will be used to acquire property closer to its other campus properties.

Earlier today, Durel told The Independent Weekly the proposal emerged in a meeting between him, the CFA and the university several months ago. "The difficulty they were having is that there has just so much up in the air. Everybody thinking one guy is going to buy it, and that's not quite happening, and then the discussions that maybe he wasn't going to buy it, with the downturn in the economy or whatever the reasons, which is none of my business or anybody's business. ...I said we've never put this on the table, but I've always wondered if it was going to end up here. I said maybe it's time to just let us buy it and turn it over to the community foundation." Durel says the anonymous benefactor plans to stay involved in the project, though it is unclear what role he will play.