Cover Story

Don't Back Down

by Leslie Turk

Girard Park residents risk way too much if they give in to attorney Jimmy Davidson's attempts to bring commercial development to their historic neighborhood.
An Independent Analysis

Girard Park residents risk way too much if they give in to attorney Jimmy Davidson's attempts to bring more commercial development to their historic neighborhood. An Independent Analysis                 Photos by Robin May

[Editor's Note: This story has been updated with links to previous coverage of attorney Jimmy Davidson and his efforts to increase the value of his land.]

Girard Park residents are exhausted. Who wouldn't be?

A legal maneuver by a neighbor who has long been a thorn in their side is once again threatening the character and integrity of their historic neighborhood. Attorney Jimmy Davidson is taking his neighbors to court to nullify a 1940 covenant that restricts Girard Park Drive frontage to residential use. It's the latest in his effort to have the property reclassified as commercial, which typically sells at a higher rate than residential.

It all started more than a decade ago, when a diligent group of Girard Park residents launched an organized resistance to Davidson's efforts to have his 4.1 acres at the corner of Girard Park and Hospital drives rezoned from residential to commercial so he could sell it at the highest possible price. It was 1998, and Davidson was attempting to have the property reclassified from single-family residential to general business, a broad classification that would allow for everything from a car dealership to a service station to a pet store or even a McDonald's. His neighbors were resolute, rallying much of the community and peppering the area with signs that read: "Save Our Neighborhood. Save Our Park."

Davidson withdrew the request.

Many of those in opposition had already acquiesced to Lafayette General Medical Center in the mid-1980s when they agreed to amend the neighborhood covenant and support rezoning to allow the hospital construct a professional office building on Girard Park Drive - across Hospital Drive from Davidson's property. Since that time, they have been steadfast in opposition to additional commercial encroachment. And they should be. With the park its prized amenity, the historic neighborhood - which boasts four A. Hays Town homes - is among the most attractive residential communities in Lafayette. There simply is nothing else like it. And Lafayette will never again have this kind of asset in the heart of the city.

Davidson, however, was back at it in 2005. Because his neighbors' passion to protect their quaint and historic piece of Lafayette from commercial intrusion had squashed his rezoning attempt, the longtime Lafayette attorney got creative. Somehow, someway, Davidson's acreage was appraised at $3.25 million by a retired appraiser/close friend/business associate. Davidson then worked out a deal with another good friend, then-UL President Ray Authement, to swap it for the first 36 acres of pristine prairie land, the front portion of UL's Johnston Street horse farm property. Davidson, who drew up the legal documents, wasn't actually getting the horse farm land; his plan was to sell his property to the group that would do the exchange with UL. Davidson, this newspaper discovered, would get to remain living on his property rent-free for two years. Davidson's 4 acres and the university's 36 were each appraised at $3.25 million. Uh-huh.

The deal stunk to high heaven, and that's when The Independent got its first introduction to Jimmy Davidson, who promptly said in a phone call that he would not discuss his property with this newspaper.

We broke the story on the dubious values in the highly suspect swap, as Davidson's property was valued at $18.20 per square foot, which ranked it among the most costly commercial land on the Lafayette real estate market. Oddly, the property was appraised for its potential commercial use, yet also got the benefit of the value of Davidson's two homes at 537 and 539 Girard Park Drive. If you're a reader of The Independent, you know the rest of the story: The shady deal fell apart. But not before we went looking for buried treasure on Davidson's property only to discover that the Lafayette attorney had been surreptitiously running a plastic injection molding operation, hiding the industrial operation and its metal buildings and forklifts behind thick shrubbery and using the swimming pool as a cooling facility - all of this in a single-family residential zone. The business, ASH Industries, which of course had not been paying its fair share of commercial property taxes, later relocated to a legitimate business site, though unsightly remnants of its existence remain on Davidson's property.

And not before Davidson threatened real estate appraiser Lane Godshall, who was hired by the state to re-value the property in 2006 and determined it to be worth only $1.5 million - threats we only learned about because we successfully sued for access to the second appraisal. "God, he was really mad," Godshall said in his deposition. "[Davidson] said, If this value gets out, I will sue your ass.'"

Jimmy Davidson is trying to nullify a 1940 covenant restricting Girard Park
Drive property to residential use so that he can have all of his 4.1 acres at Girard
Park and Hospital drives rezoned for commercial use. Davidson himself violated
zoning laws years ago by surreptitiously operating a plastics manufacturing
business on his property; while the business has moved out, remnants of the
industrial operation remain.     Photo by Robin May

In his words and actions, Davidson has made it clear he will stop at nothing to get his property's value up.

Davidson took another major step toward that end in late 2007 when he negotiated a sweet deal with outgoing councilmen to have his property rezoned, again despite overwhelming opposition from Lafayette Consolidated Government's zoning staff, the Lafayette Zoning Commission and, of course, his Girard Park neighbors. He successfully rezoned 2.67 acres in the back of the property for commercial use, purportedly to construct office and retail space. It was rezoned 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. The council also agreed to rezone a little more than an acre of the single-family residential property along Girard Park Drive from R-1-A, or single-family residential, to R-4, which allows condominiums, townhouses and patio homes.

Both Lafayette Consolidated Government's zoning staff and the Lafayette Zoning Commission opposed his rezoning request 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.

The domino effect of commercial intrusion was a major issue for opposing neighbors, but the group also expressed concerns about safety and the impact of additional traffic in the residential area surrounding the park.

The rezoning meant Davidson could construct a beautiful townhouse or condo project on Girard Park Drive and now had a range of options for what he could put on the back of the property, save for a plastics manufacturing business.

While disappointed in defeat, neighbors thought they'd heard the last of Davidson after the 2007 rezoning but got a surprise in November when they were served with a lawsuit. Davidson's not satisfied with the R-4 classification on his front acreage, so he's taking 19 of his neighbors to court.

Lafayette Consolidated Government, which owns the old Planetarium and
Heymann Memorial Park, says it is protecting its own interests by
intervening in Davidson's lawsuit. LCG's attorney calls it "a fairly cut and
dried legal matter in which Davidson appears to have obtained the
consents of a necessary number of property owners to have the restriction lifted."

He is asking the court to declare null and void a 1940 covenant, Act 153556, that restricts the first 300 feet of property on the east side of Girard Park to residential use - and may also restrict to residential all of the west side of Girard Park Drive south of the park, from the Verlander property at Girard Park Drive and Girard Park Circle (catercorner to Davidson's land) up to the coulee - allowing for both single-family dwellings and apartments. When the covenant was signed in 1940, Girard Park Drive was a shell road known as Taft Street Extension, so as best we can determine, all Girard Park Drive property north of Davidson's house (beginning with Tony Gordon's home site) is not technically encumbered by the covenant. However, Gary McGoffin, the attorney for the majority of residents sued by Davidson, maintains that based on deeds for property sold in the area, those properties appear to be part of the overall plan to restrict the area to residential use. Property owners in Girard Woods subdivision, while they are part of Act 153556 and have a voice in the matter, would be protected from commercial development by their own subdivision covenants, McGoffin says. Davidson's argument is that Act 153556 (the one that also restricts ownership and occupancy in Girard Park to the white race, a provision that stopped appearing in later deeds but was never officially amended out) has been canceled numerous times over the years by non-comforming uses; he ought to know, as he got his plastics manufacturing business grandfathered into commercial zoning because it had operated under the radar for so long. In particular, he cites the old LCG-owned Planetarium and Heymann Memorial Park, and Lafayette General's professional office building, all located along Girard Park Drive. As property owners covered by Act 153556, Lafayette General and LCG - the latter last week got a district court judgment that nullifying the act is in its best interest - also want the covenant off the books. LCG's decision to intervene in the suit at this time is disappointing; with the potential to upset the residential integrity of this historic neighborhood, nullifying the covenant flies in the face of the comprehensive plan for growth local government is about to embark upon. "After reviewing the matter, I concluded that Mr. Davidson was entitled to the relief he sought, and if Mr. Davidson was entitled to this relief, it was in LCG's interest to intervene in the lawsuit to seek the same relief," LCG attorney Mike Hebert writes in an email response. "If LCG does not participate in the lawsuit, it is legally questionable whether rulings in the suit would bind LCG or apply to LCG's property."

We believe LCG should have let the court decide this matter.

Davidson has gathered support from residents since the mid-1990s and claims to now have releases from owners of 50 percent-plus of the total acreage affected by Act 153556 - which opposing residents and their attorney have taken to calling simply "56." It appears that there is roughly 50 acres affected by 56. The potential immediate impact of that suit? It could have the effect of tying up the defendants' properties.

Most Girard Park property owners contacted for this story referred calls to McGoffin (disclosure: McGoffin is also the attorney for The Independent). "The present residential restriction has been in effect for more than 70 years," McGoffin says. "It is the single best protection of the unique residential, park and green space in the center of Lafayette." McGoffin stresses that nullifying the covenant could eventually result in the encroachment of just about any commercial interest on Davidson's acreage. "It could loom over that corner of the park and neighborhood," the attorney says. "That's the problem. The unknown."

Residents did not get a "solid hedge, or other suitable barrier in order to minimize
the effect of parked cars on the view from Girard Park Drive" from Lafayette General's
professional office building, despite assurances in a 1984 legal document.

McGoffin is confident the residents he represents could prevail in court. "Davidson has the burden of proof," he says. "There is still a question of whether 56 is a building restriction or a servitude. Servitude variance requires unanimous consent. Building restrictions require majority of total acreage." Additionally, McGoffin says Davidson has yet to present a plat to account for all the property encumbered by 56.

But McGoffin is a pragmatist. "It always makes sense to sit down with your neighbors to see if there is common ground that can be agreed upon," he says. "It yields a known result instead of rolling the dice, all or nothing, in court."

With UL likely out of the picture, hoping to - logically, we might add - expand its campus in a northwest direction to eventually connect it with the Congress Street research park property, it's highly likely Davidson is once again angling for the attention of his original suitor, Lafayette General.

Davidson's attorney, Arthur Mouton, declined comment. Davidson, who is now president of the state bar association, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

That Davidson is not going away is no reason residents should relinquish the integrity of the neighborhood, but it's also doubtful they want to spend what could amount to several years and tens of thousands of dollars fighting him in court. If he's successful in court, they would have to fight him again before zoning because he will still need to get the front acreage reclassified. That too would be a gamble; zoning is likely to oppose reclassifying the property, but who knows what the council might do.

That's precisely why we think fighting him in court is money well spent, the battle well worth fighting. Greed should not be allowed to undo what all of these residents have worked decades to preserve.

We strongly urge the residents to keep the covenant on the books - and ask that they not use as a negotiating tool the option of amending it just for Davidson's property. Keeping the covenant but amending it to suit Davidson, in much the same way it was amended for Lafayette General, will in all likelihood result in another battle with a yet another landowner dazzled by dollar signs.

The residential stipulation is what Jimmy Davidson's father, J.J. Davidson Jr., wanted to do to protect the family property in 1940 when he joined other property owners M. Eloi Girard, Dr. P. Merritt Girard and Donald Labbe to craft the covenant.

But since the residents and their attorney appear ready to reach out to Davidson, and if he is willing to negotiate - we're betting he won't budge - they should demand, in writing, the least intrusive structure, adequate buffering, controlled lighting and other conditions over development of the property along Girard Park. Force him, or the hospital, or whoever is buying the property, to spell out exactly what's planned and hold them to it.

One of the homes on the Davidson property at Girard Park and Hospital drives

"Can you imagine a multi-story parking garage on the corner?" asks attorney Robbie Mahtook, who lives two lots down from Davidson. Technically, the act in question does not appear to apply to Mahtook's property at 427 Girard Park Drive, but he is nonetheless just as fearful of what might be built. "My position is going to be we want a buffer zone. And we want to stipulate, exactly, what the buffer zone is."

Although neighbors got legal assurances in the 1984 covenant amendment from Lafayette General that the hospital would adequately buffer the parking lot of the professional office building from Girard Park Drive - obtained by The Independent, the agreement called for a "solid hedge, or other suitable barrier" - parked cars remain visible from the street, separated by a chain link fence and minimal trees and shrubbery.

Still, residents interviewed for this story say Lafayette General is probably the most palatable option, because of its commitment to stay in the Oil Center and genuine appreciation for the integrity of the neighborhood. And they'd like to include the hospital in their discussions with Davidson.

The hospital's president and CEO, however, says sitting down with residents and Davidson and discussing any potential development or stipulations would be "extremely premature." While the hospital has long maintained a strong interest in the Davidson property, David Callecod says the hospital's last substantive discussions with Davidson about the property were in late 2008 when the attorney asked it to join the effort to nullify the covenant. "We've not had any discussions about actually acquiring the property," he says.

Girard Park residents and all of Lafayette should stand up to this bully one more time. Preserving the unique character and historic fabric of this community asset is critical to who we are.

Business, In General

In 2007, attorney Jimmy Davidson successfully lobbied the Lafayette City-Parish Council to reclassify the back 2.67 acres of his property from single-family residential to B-1-L, or limited business. Because the Oil Center has grown so much over the years, dramatically altering the landscape of that area, the new classification connects the back of his property with similar commercial zoning. Among the types of businesses allowed in B-1-L are: beauty shop, bookstore, professional office, candy store, coffee and/or pastry shop, commercial child care facility, convenience store (excluding gasoline and diesel sales), cosmetic store, drug store (with drive-thru for pharmaceutical products only), floral shop, gift shop, hamburger and/or sandwich shop, hobby supply store, ice cream parlor, laundry (self-service), tobacco store, antique shop, apparel and accessory shop, art gallery, dance studio, interior decorator, jewelry store, personal service shop and stationery store. In 1998, Davidson was unsuccessful in his attempt to have the property rezoned B-G, or general business, a broad classification that would allow for everything from a car dealership to a service station to a pet store or even a McDonald's.

ASH Industries moved off Davidson's Girard Park Drive
property in 2006 but left its sign behind.

Unneighborly Conduct

1998 - Davidson applies to rezone his two homes on Girard Park Drive from single-family residential to general business. Neighbors fight back and he withdraws the request.

2005 - A proposed land swap with UL for a portion of its horse farm property has Davidson's residentially zoned property valued at $3.25 million; property gets both residential and commercial pricing benefits. In reporting the story, The Independent discovers a well-hidden injection molding company, ASH Industries, operating on the back of the property.

2006 - Dubious value of Davidson's land prompts state to order new appraisal. Davidson threatens real estate appraiser Lane Godshall, whom the state hired to re-value the property and determined it to be worth only $1.5 million. "If this value gets out, I will sue your ass," Davidson tells appraiser.

2007 - Davidson strikes sweet deal with outgoing council members to have the back of his property rezoned for commercial use and the front rezoned to allow for condos and townhouses (the only returning council member, Bruce Conque, and Councilman Dale Bourgeois cast votes against the rezoning).

2011- Davidson files suit to declare null and void the 1940 covenant that restricts Girard Park Drive property to residential use to pave the way for another effort to reclassify all of the property as commercial. Names 19 of his neighbors as defendants.