In the Zone

by Leslie Turk

Attorney Jimmy Davidson's Girard Park property has been rezoned without a comprehensive plan for what he wants to do with it, fueling speculation he is still trying to strike a deal with UL Lafayette.

UL President Ray Authement certainly acted quickly.

On Wednesday, Nov. 28, he issued a press release detailing how the university is "landlocked," an argument the outgoing university president has made at every opportunity over the past couple of years, but the timing on this release appears more than coincidental. It was distributed the day after attorney Jimmy Davidson successfully rezoned a portion of his Girard Park Drive property for commercial use.

It's the same 4.1 acres Authement has long tried to get his hands on, the property at the corner of Hospital and Girard Park drives that was part of the failed horse farm land-swap. It was valued at $3.25 million for the deal but shown to be worth only $1.5 million after the state ordered a new appraisal. The new commercial classification, however, may make it more valuable today.

Titled "Large Enrollment, Not Much Room for Growth," with the subheading, "UL Lafayette second to smallest main academic campus in acres in UL System," Wednesday's release repeated the case for why UL needs more property. "The university needs to acquire land close to campus to make room for expansion," the release reads. "Constructing academic buildings away from the main campus creates major inconveniences for students and operating a transportation system is proving to be expensive. The cost of labor, buses and fuel is a financial burden on the university."

The day before Authement reiterated his landlocked message, Davidson worked out a sweet deal with outgoing Lafayette City-Parish Council members, who overwhelmingly approved the controversial rezoning of his property ' despite that he has yet to deliver a specific plan for what he hopes to develop there. The only council members to vote against the rezoning were Bruce Conque and Dale Bourgeois. Rob Stevenson, who indicated several weeks ago to The Independent Weekly that he would likely side with neighbors who opposed the rezoning, was absent.

"I made two attempts with Jimmy to get some assurances and couldn't get them," Conque says. The councilman had hoped to get specific conditions in writing to protect the integrity of the park area and to ensure that if Davidson sells the property ' which he has long tried to do ' those conditions would be still have to be met. Among Conque's requests was that Davidson restrict the commercial rezoning to the portion of the property behind the two old homes, ensuring the residential area would remain intact. But Davidson was unwilling to compromise. "If he was willing to put it on paper, I would have supported it," Conque says.

Until 2006, the local attorney surreptitiously ran a plastics manufacturing business in his back yard long enough to have it grandfathered into a commercial zoning classification, but it reverted to residential classification when Davidson relocated the business ("Backyard Plastics Business Moving Out," Jan. 6, 2006). Now he has successfully rezoned 2.67 acres in the back of the property for commercial use, purportedly to construct office and retail space. It was rezoned for B-1-L, a limited business classification that would allow a variety of developments ranging from apartments to neighborhood service oriented businesses and office space. It's unclear what will happen to the pool, which was used as a cooling facility for the plastics business, and tennis court.

The council also agreed to rezone a little more than an acre of the single-family residential property along Girard Park Drive to R-4, which allows condominiums, townhouses and patio homes (both attached and detached).

Both Lafayette Consolidated Government's zoning staff and the Lafayette Zoning Commission opposed the rezoning in large part because Davidson would not present a firm plan for redeveloping the property; by law, he does not have to do so, and the council did not hold him to that standard. While Davidson did present a general plan to the council, it was anything but comprehensive.

"There are no contingencies, no conditional rezoning," says Douglas English, who lives on Girard Woods Drive and heads the neighborhood group that fought the intrusion of commercial development in the residentially-zoned area. He maintains that the council employed flawed logic in determining that Davidson should be able to rezone his property for commercial use simply because it is near existing businesses like Lafayette General Medical Center and the Oil Center. "To put a commercial facility in there now upsets that balance," English says, "especially since we don't know what the commercial is."

Conque also asked that the rezoning be tabled for one week so that Davidson and the residents could come to terms. "He got no support for that," English says.

Commercial intrusion was a major issue for opponents, but the group also expressed concerns about safety and the impact of additional traffic in the residential area surrounding the park. At the meeting, Davidson agreed to donate the right-of-way for the city to build a roundabout at the corner of Girard Park and Hospital drives, which would address some safety and traffic concerns.

The extent to which the rezoning increases the value of Davidson's property is unclear because the back portion of the property has limited access. The only way to get to it is from the Oil Center parking lot and the residential driveways, the latter no longer allowable once the property is developed commercially. Davidson is proposing to use his existing curb cut on Hospital Drive, which is a driveway to one of the homes, to create a new access point to the commercial development.

The lack of a master plan and Davidson's waffling on what he wants to build again is fueling speculation that the longtime UL supporter who is a member of the UL Foundation's Board of Trustees simply secured the rezoning in order to sell the property to UL for more than $1.5 million. The acreage was initially, and inaccurately, appraised for its commercial potential at $3.25 million by retired Lafayette appraiser George Parker. A new appraisal ordered by the state after questions were raised about the integrity of the first appraisal reduced the value more than half. As a state entity, however, UL would not have been held to any zoning restrictions had it purchased the property before it was reclassified.

"We've always thought that that's in the background," English says of a potential purchase of the property by UL.

Authement, who was successfully sued by The Independent Weekly after refusing to release the state-ordered appraisal, has never wavered in his desire to acquire the property.

"I just spoke with Dr. Authement, and he said that because our campus is landlocked he is absolutely interested in purchasing any available property near campus," UL spokeswoman Julie Dronet said last Wednesday morning. "He has not, however, spoken to Mr. Davidson since the property was rezoned yesterday evening to discuss the availability of the property."

About six hours later, Authement's "landlocked" press release was sent to local media.