Independent Weekly Gets Copy of Davidson Appraisal

by Leslie Turk

University was leaving $3.87 million on the table in defunct horse farm land swap. By Leslie Turk

ONE POINT FIVE MILLION DOLLARS. That's the value of Lafayette attorney Jimmy Davidson's Girard Park Drive property -- less than half the $3.25 million UL Lafayette was going to pay in the now-defunct horse farm land swap deal -- according to the most recent appraisal of the land. The contentious appraisal, which The Independent Weekly successfully argued was a public record in a June 30 lawsuit against the university, was turned over by UL on Monday. The university decided not to appeal 15th Judicial District Judge Ed Rubin's Sept. 11 decision that the document, prepared by Lafayette appraiser Lane Godshall, is a public record ordered in connection with the proposed property exchange (all other appraisals had been eagerly released by the university). Rubin rejected the university's claim that the document was prepared in anticipation of litigation ' specifically a potential expropriation lawsuit the state might one day file to seize the Davidson property.

The $1.75 million discrepancy in the overvalued Davidson land isn't all the university stood to lose. It was also leaving $2.12 million on the table by selling the horse farm acreage as undervalued residential land while attempting to rezone it to a more valuable commercial zoning classification for the buyer. That's almost $4 million the university was squandering in this deal, which the Board of Supervisors for the UL System approved in August 2005 ' not to mention how close Lafayette came to having the state's beloved horse farm acreage turned into a retail center with a planned Wal-Mart store. Thanks to widespread community activism and opposition, the 100-acre horse farm is -- for now -- safe from this kind of development.

In a secretive deal between a tight-knit group of university officials and supporters that smacked of cronyism, the university had proposed exchanging 36 acres of its horse farm land on Johnston Street for 4.1 acres of Davidson's family land on Girard Park Drive, claiming both were valued at $3.25 million. The first Davidson appraisal was conducted in December 2003 by now-retired appraiser George Parker, a close associate of Davidson's. UL President Ray Authement testified in his deposition that he did not officially call off the exchange until mid-June, when he met with the respective parties; the university did not publicly acknowledge the land swap's demise until almost a month later.

While handing over the appraisal to The Independent Weekly, the university issued a tersely worded press release to local media saying it initially assumed the appraisal was a public record and was prepared to make the document public: "Upon learning of a state statute that specifically excepts appraisals from the Public Records Law and learning of the Division of Administration's policy prohibiting release of appraisals, the university sought advice of legal counsel. Acting upon this advice, the university did not release the appraisal." The Louisiana Public Records Law does not exempt land appraisals, except in specific cases where there is ongoing or impending litigation, but the Division of Administration has kept all such appraisals from the public under that guise for decades, citing only its unwritten, long-standing policy of not releasing appraisals of land the state is interested in acquiring.

It was the Board of Supervisors for the UL System that stepped in at the 11th hour to order "independent" appraisals of both the Davidson property and the horse farm acreage, but the horse farm has yet to be reappraised. The board intervened on Dec. 7 only after being compelled to do so by the $2.12 discrepancy on the horse farm.

In contrast to the position Authement asserts in Monday's press release, the university president said in his Aug. 31 deposition that the value of the new appraisal of Davidson's property should not be released, even though his friend Davidson already knew the value. The first reason he cited? "Public opinion."