Authement Yanks Rezoning Request

by Leslie Turk

The UL horse farm deal looks dead in the water, but community activists aren't taking any chances.

At best, UL Lafayette's controversial land swap proposal is now on life support ' UL President Ray Authement's withdrawal of his rezoning request last week appears to have killed the deal. But the Save the Horse Farm community activist group is keeping a watchful eye for new developments and praying the news opens the door for the city to acquire the land to turn it into a community park.

One member, Girard Park Drive bed-and-breakfast owner Kolleen Bowen Verlander, says Authement could seek a more restrictive rezoning that would still allow for commercial projects on the 100-acre tract of undeveloped Johnston Street land. "We can't second-guess Authement," says Verlander. "All we can do is be a watchdog in the university's dealings with the Board of Supervisors [for the UL System]."

The contentious rezoning issue, whereby Authement was seeking to have 36 acres of the land closest to Johnston Street reclassified from residential to general business so that he could swap them for 4 acres on Girard Park Drive, was scheduled for a vote of the Lafayette City-Parish Council on March 1. The Zoning Commission had recommended against the rezoning, saying the proposed developers of a commercial center on the land, BRE-ARD LLC, did not submit a plan that addressed traffic impact, vehicular access, infrastructure improvements and buffering from nearby residents.

UL President Ray Authement was at a Board of Supervisors meeting last Friday and was unavailable for comment. "We need more time to explore our options," says Julie Dronet, the university's director of public relations.

The board, which approved the suspect land swap in August 2005, would have to give its nod to any new arrangement, whether in the form of a restructuring of the current exchange or a new one.

On Dec. 7, the board requested independent appraisals of the horse farm and the Girard Park property after appraisals commissioned by the university for the proposed swap valued both tracts at $3.25 million. The board had already ordered that the horse farm be re-appraised based on its pending rezoning application to commercial, which increased its value from $3.25 million to $5.37 million.

The state Division of Administration's Office of Facility Planning and Control is handling the issue of the new appraisals. That office's spokeswoman, Denise Marrero, could not be reached for comment last week.

Verlander says Save the Horse Farm's primary effort is focused on building coalitions of support across the city. "Our plan is to start uniting the community," she says.

As first reported in The Independent Weekly ("Field of Dreams," Dec. 21), City-Parish President Joey Durel has been contacted by a number of influential business leaders hoping to preserve the community landmark. Those interested parties ' which include individuals from the real estate, legal, financial and manufacturing sectors ' are not only proposing a public-private partnership, but they are also willing to provide their services free of charge. Durel has declined to identify any of the potential partners at this time.

Durel is in ongoing talks with Authement, hoping to work out a deal to take over the horse farm property and help the university get land closer to campus for expansion. As part of those negotiations, Durel had the 8-acre Youth Park that adjoins the campus behind the Johnston Street fire station appraised, but it was valued at only $400,000. At that price, Durel says it makes more sense to keep the park.

Ultimately, a portion of the horse farm may be developed residentially, using some of the proceeds to pay for the park, according to Durel. He stresses that a 50-acre park is better than no park ' and certainly more attractive than the alternative of commercial development. "I've got some things up my sleeve, but I can't talk about them right now," Durel says. "But the things we're talking about would have to be made public pretty soon."