20100505-cover-0101Written by Walter Pierce
Photos by Robin May

The Ambassador Caffery south extension has turned into a land rush,
amplifying suspicions and further straining stressed relations among mayors.

The gavel comes down hard on the podium — bang! bang! “Mayor, you’re out of order,” snips Youngsville’s Wilson Viator to his counterpart from neighboring Broussard. “We’re here to talk about Ambassador Caffery road. Stick to the subject!”
Mayor Charles Langlinais has walked into a hornet’s nest — squeezed is a better word. The Youngsville City Council chamber is standing-room-only for this special meeting devoted to annexing a mile-long strip of the newly opened Ambassador Caffery Parkway south extension, a stretch that by Youngsville’s standards is golden. It’s a single-item agenda tonight.

There are a tension and urgency in the room that overwhelm the perfume and the aftershave, a sense that if Youngsville doesn’t get this done today, before the sun drops into the sugar cane fields, the city of Broussard will. Mayor Viator is agitated, impatient and suspicious of Langlinais.
It’s Wednesday, April 28, and Youngsville, a bedroom community if ever there were one, flush with subdivisions and hungry for a commercial sales tax base to sustain them, is standing up to big, bad Charlie and grabbing its piece of the pie. And Charlie Langlinais, calm as a summer morning, his white mane matted by a ball cap, stands among them with a smile that borders on a smirk. It’s either moxie or gall, or a combination of both.
20100505-cover-0102“The point is,” Langlinais says, unfazed by Viator’s gavel, “there are opportunities for everyone.”

Twenty-four hours earlier, the Broussard City Council tabled an ordinance seeking to annex a portion of the same strip Youngsville is after. Broussard hadn’t gotten its petitions certified. Youngsville had. So Langlinais, with a coterie of Broussard officials standing sheepishly behind him, has come to Youngsville tonight to cut a deal. He wants to run water and sewer along the strip Youngsville plans to annex — from just west of La. 89 to just west of Bonin Road — to reach the Romero property, which would allow Broussard to annex an additional mile on the south side of Ambassador nearly to La Neuvelle Road. And Langlinais says he’ll let Youngsville use those lines for the businesses that open in their annexation, saving them millions.

“That’s about good neighbors working together in annexing property,” Langlinais intones.

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Remember that expression, “good neighbors.”

For 20 years Youngsville has idled commercially as Broussard has bustled, presided over by the affable, cocksure Langlinais, a former landman now in his fifth term who parlayed a knack for divining the promise in property into a political career that by any small-town measure has been very big indeed.

But Youngsville hears the hooves of a Trojan horse in Langlinais’ magnanimity, and Viator refuses to open the gate.
Bang goes the gavel. “You’re out of order again,” Viator admonishes Langlinais. “Stick to the annexation of property. We’re talking about 60 acres here. You’re more than welcome to make a proposal. But I don’t see where you’ll get anywhere negotiating at an open meeting.”

This is a part of the world where elected officials get their names, towns and titles embroidered onto their shirts, the country margins of our otherwise urban parish.

Langlinais draws on the vernacular when he urges the Youngsville folk not to “poison the well.”

Moments later, the Youngsville council votes to annex the land and, by most readings of state annexation law, block Broussard’s westward expansion along Ambassador. After the meeting, Langlinais tells a television reporter, “They poisoned the well.”

20100505-cover-0103
Broussard Mayor Charles Langlinais stepped into hostile territory a week ago when he went to the Youngsville City Council meeting in an attempt to cut a deal.

Charlie Langlinais calls them “the brothers-in-law.” It’s known, though not widely, that Youngsville Mayor Wilson Viator is married to Lafayette City-Parish President Joey Durel’s sister. They are brothers-in-law by letter of the law, and they preside over the other two cities in south Lafayette Parish that have been vying with Broussard to drive a stake into the unincorporated land lining the Ambassador extension between La. 89 (commonly called the Youngsville Highway) and Verot School Road. In five, 10, 20 years, those three miles of Ambassador will look much like most of Ambassador in the city of Lafayette — awash in commercial development and flowing with sales tax revenue.

For Langlinais, it’s Durel and Viator against Charlie Langlinais.

“There’s absolutely no doubt. All you have to do is pull out Joey’s so-called colored map,” Langlinais says, referring to a map the Durel administration created envisioning the entire parish annexed by all of the municipalities, leaving none of the parish unincorporated. If adopted by the six cities, there would be no more open land to squabble over. But Langlinais, who has built a reputation for aggressive if not savvy annexations during 20 years in office, believes the map favors Youngsville and Lafayette.
“Since all this has come forward, I’ve gotten more petition drives that are being initiated by [residents living near] Broussard who realize, hey, if we don’t do something and incorporate [with Broussard], we’re going to be pushed into the city of Lafayette. They don’t want that.”

But according to sources inside LCG, the city of Lafayette has also been approached by residents in subdivisions in the no man’s land between Broussard, Lafayette and Youngsville seeking annexation. Frank Thibeaux, annexation coordinator for LCG’s Planning, Zoning & Codes Department, told The Independent last week that Lafayette is working on several more annexations in that area.

Through Langlinais’ prism, there’s a willful effort by Lafayette and Youngsville, working in concert, to block Broussard from filling any unincorporated areas between the three cities. It’s an accusation both Viator and Durel deny.

“I think it’s hilarious — it’s funny,” says Durel. “If anything it might show it’s worth having a good relationship to get things done rather than a bad relationship.”

“Joey Durel didn’t have anything to do with what I annexed,” adds Viator. “All I can say is that I worked hard at what I did to get Ambassador Caffery, and I did it without Lafayette knowing and without [Broussard] knowing what I was doing.”

The suspicion in Lafayette and Youngsville has been that Langlinais wants to extend his town limits all the way along Ambassador to Verot School Road, which would have been possible had Youngsville not blocked Broussard from moving westward. But Langlinais denies it. “I have no desire to go to Verot, you can quote me on that,” he says. “And, in fact, the furthest point I want to go is where our current quote-unquote line is.” That would be to just east of La Neuville Road, according to the proposed annexation Broussard submitted a couple of weeks ago to the Lafayette Parish Assessor’s office.

Durel has cited a “gentleman’s agreement” among the three mayors stipulating that once the Ambassador extension was open, each would get a share. “I always thought,” he says, “that a portion was rightfully in Broussard, a portion was rightfully in Lafayette and a portion was rightfully in Youngsville.”

Both Durel and Viator point out that Broussard, which has the smallest population of the three, already has half of the Ambassador extension, and as far as many are concerned, that’s plenty, especially on the south side of Ambassador between the Youngsville Highway and Verot. “I think that property should either be Youngsville or Lafayette,” Viator asserts.

Langlinais is quick to note, and he does it often, that the city of Broussard put up $10 million dollars toward the project to get Ambassador all the way to U.S. Highway 90. That’s a common theme among all three cities — that they’ve made investments in that area of the parish and, by rights, deserve to reap the returns.

And it’s true: Broussard threw in millions to enable the state to run Ambassador to U.S. 90. But the project never would have happened had Lafayette not agreed to take over maintenance of Kaliste Saloom Road, previously a state highway, and to sacrifice in the near term the widening of Verot School Road. The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development has a statutory limit on how many miles of roadway it can maintain. Lafayette assumed a huge financial burden in taking on Kaliste Saloom; the Ambassador extension would have been impossible without that. And Youngsville has poured millions into Chemin Metairie as well as improvements on Bonin Road, both of which will soon be major intersections with Ambassador.

There’s just an unavoidable sense among many — elected and otherwise — that Broussard has done enough annexing, and Langlinais’ gesticulations about the sacrifices Broussard has made are getting tiresome if not comical to his counterparts in Lafayette and Youngsville. “The other night I had to sit in my council meeting and listen to him brag about how much money he put up, and I almost wore out my teeth keeping my mouth shut,” Viator says with a laugh.

It’s also worth noting that a few years ago when state Sen. Mike Michot approached the mayors in Lafayette Parish and asked them how they wanted to divvy up more than $20 million in surplus state transportation funding, the mayors agreed that because of the heavy traffic and the need for an improved hurricane evacuation route on U.S. Highway 90, Broussard should get virtually all of the money. That funding will be used to widen 90 to six lanes.

“When you look at Broussard,” says Viator, “they have 6.6 miles [3.3 miles on each side] on Ambassador Caffery, they have 15 miles [7.5 miles on each side] on Highway 90; they have more prime property on Highway 90 than the city of Lafayette has.

And, hey, I’m glad for him; they’ve done an excellent job. But don’t try to cut me down for what I’m doing. It’s time.

Youngsville is way overdue to get something on a major thoroughfare, and that’s why we’re going to continue to pursue the idea of annexing property.”

It’s clear in speaking with Viator that U.S. 90 is a sore point. “Nobody was crying on anybody’s shoulder when [Broussard] annexed all the way to Le Triomphe and blocked us from Highway 90,” the mayor steams. So to most unbiased observers who know the background on this feud in south Lafayette Parish, Langlinais included, last Wednesday’s special meeting in Youngsville was as much about political payback as it was about obtaining a valuable commercial corridor.

Langlinais brushes off the treatment he received at the Youngsville meeting. “When you have people do that, I learned a long time ago, you got to turn your cheek three times,” he says. “The bottom line, I’ve been in office 20 years, I’ve had a lot worse thrown at me. And in the end I’ve always gone back to try to work with people. Tempers flare, and I fully expected what happened.”

Eventually there will be nothing left to annex in this part of the parish — truce through incorporation. And for the foreseeable future, after Youngsville blocked Broussard from moving west on Ambassador, a cease fire may set in. Viator and Langlinais have also agreed to sit down and talk.

Lafayette City-Parish Council Chairman Jay Castille, who serves as chair of Council of Governments comprising the mayors of the parish’s six municipalities, called a meeting in April but, according to Castille, Durel and Langlinais didn’t show up.

Castille’s district in north Lafayette Parish is far removed from the Ambassador turf war, but he believes that settling once and for all the annexation issues in the parish will be for the good of everyone.

“We don’t want to tell each city how to annex,” Castille told The Independent last week, “but we just want to be able to find a better way to grow with each of the little cities and Lafayette and not have these controversies pop up. I’m just trying to get them all to the table so we can start talking about it and stop the bickering and all the stuff that’s going on. I’m also going to work on some type of goal for all six cities to work toward to try to help each other instead of fighting each other. [I’m] trying to mend some old wounds, some old fences.”

For many in Youngsville, Broussard’s growth has been wildly excessive and, worse, calculated to hem them in. Broussard’s rapid annexation along Highway 90 blocked Youngsville from cashing in on what has become a lucrative commercial and industrial corridor.

Langlinais is unapologetic about his two decades at city hall. “When I took office in 1990, there was one house built during that first year,” he recalls with pride. “Everything else was sugar cane. Highway 90 was completely unbuilt. There was nothing along Highway 90. We grew the city from raw, undeveloped property. We put services in, we put utilities in. We essentially developed an industrial corridor along the Highway 90 backbone.”

That development has lured in a Walmart, a Home Depot, a multi-plex movie theater, oil service companies and dozens of other businesses that have grown Broussard’s annual budget from about $600,000 in 1990 to $14 million today.

The old wounds Castille referred to are evident in Viator’s gavel, and in the manner in which all three municipalities occupying south Lafayette Parish have gone about seeking annexations in the area. In just the last three weeks Broussard has used a surrogate to purchase land off Ambassador to block Lafayette from annexing Les Vieux Chenes Golf Course and Fabacher Field — city-owned and -operated facilities. Countering the subterfuge, Lafayette officials, in accordance with state meeting notification laws, published notice of a special Monday morning meeting of the City-Parish Council in The Sunday Advertiser after Viator brokered a secret deal to help Lafayette annex another strip of property to reach the golf course. Cloak and dagger, Cajun-style.

The opening of the Ambassador extension seems to have brought out the worst in everyone, or at least amplified the suspicions among the municipalities. Langlinais, meanwhile, scoffs at suggestions that his aims for Ambassador are excessive, and besides, he says, the area west of the Youngsville Highway won’t generate a king’s ransom in sales taxes. “There’s only acreage to do strip malls,” he insists. “I got two or three strip malls built during the Go Zone era two or three years ago. One of them’s completely vacant.”

While Youngsville’s sales tax base has grown four-fold during Viator’s tenure — Rouses, McDonald’s, CVS, four community banks and other businesses have opened there in recent years — the city is still hard-pressed to provide services to its sprawling residential component. So, Viator will take any new businesses he can get. “The thing is,” he says, “I don’t mind strip malls, and I don’t mind mom-and-pop operations, because that’s what built America, and that’s what’ll build Youngsville.”

The events of the past few weeks have only served to amplify skepticism about Langlinais’ motives.

“There was never any talk of us working together until [Broussard] couldn’t get 100 percent of what they wanted,” Durel says of Langlinais’ olive branch at the Youngsville council meeting. “All this talk about good neighbor stuff? What am I missing here?”
For now, Charlie Langlinais appears to be checked in his empire building westward along Ambassador.

And for Wilson Viator, who wants more but who will undoubtedly acquire it in rhythm with Lafayette, it’s a relief. “I can tell you this,” he says. “When I annex any more of it, it’s going to be done up front. I don’t have any reason to hide because I don’t have to worry about anyone coming and cutting my throat.”

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