This wooded land at 3100 Ambassador Caffery, across from Wal-Mart, is another
example of how landowners are abusing a state property tax law created to protect
farmers. One of the 11-acre tracts shown above was billed $28 in property
taxes last year, breaking the assessor’s own guidelines for who gets to take
advantage of the special tax rates.
Wednesday, May 11, 2011

It ain’t just hay allowing Lafayette landowners to skirt their share of taxes. By Heather Miller

The grass is not always greener on the 4,000-plus acres of farmland within the city limits of Lafayette, but for the landowners who sit on undeveloped prime lots and pay less than a fraction of what commercial land is billed in property taxes, the green just keeps on piling up in the form of tax breaks.

In its April 6 cover story, “Green Acres,” The Independent Weekly cited Parc Lafayette Developer Glenn Stewart as an example of how wealthy landowners with vacant lots have for decades used a loophole in state law that allows them to receive the same property tax status as farmland. Landowners with prime commercial property can either cut hay — or just sign a form at the assessor’s office attesting to the hay cultivation — and legally circumvent paying thousands of dollars every year that would have otherwise been spent on public services. Stewart paid $42 in property taxes last year for 13.5 acres at the corner of Kaliste Saloom Road and Camellia Boulevard, and would have paid more than $48,000 last year had he been paying commercial use prices.

But Stewart’s not the only landowner to dodge behind the proverbial bale of hay. The Independent Weekly pointed out hundreds of agricultural acres, mostly owned by the Salooms and the Boustanys, that sit vacant on the south side of town near River Ranch and the Target shopping center — one of the most commercially developed and fastest growing areas of the city. And records at the assessor’s office also reveal other similar stories, some of which are blatant violations of even the tax assessor’s own guidelines in granting ag status.

According to state law, “bona fide” agricultural, horticultural, marsh and timber properties are assessed under the land’s use value rather than fair market value, or the process used to assess commercial property. Lafayette Parish Assessor Conrad Comeaux says commercial land is assessed at 10 percent of the commercial land’s fair market value, while farmland is taxed at a rate that can sometimes equal less than half of 1 percent of its market value.

Of all the property in Lafayette Parish classified as farmland, only one carries the title of timberland — and it’s not the wooded acreage at 3100 Ambassador Caffery across the street from Wal-Mart. Yet the 11 acres of urban forest, surrounded by subdivisions, sound walls and Hooter’s, paid $28.69 in taxes last year. If the thicket along Ambassador had been taxed at a commercial value of $5 a square foot, as Comeaux says it would have been without the ag status, the land’s 12 owners, seven of them members of the Arnould family, would have had to shell out more than $23,000.

Oddly enough, only half of the Ambassador woodland is paying into the ag use tax bracket. The woods are separated into two 11-acre tracts of land, one of which was busted in 2003 for claiming agriculture status ­— sans the actual farming operation. Comeaux says a tree-covered lot is one of the few ways his office can verify — through aerial photos — that no farming activity is taking place. Notes attached to the former farmland cite a picture as the reason for its ag status being discontinued. The other 11 acres of adjacent forest, however, remain a cash crop in terms of property tax rates, somehow slipping through the cracks until the land was questioned by The Independent Weekly.

About a mile away from the tree haven lies dozens of undeveloped acres around the Mall of Acadiana, the vast majority of which are paying agricultural property taxes. One of the Mall of Acadiana farm tracts sold for $643,000 an acre in November 2010, records show, but before the sale the property contributed a whopping $12 a year in property taxes. Two such lots, owned by former Mall of Acadiana developer Robert B. Aikens and other out-of-state associates, are listed specifically as “Dillard’s future option.” Despite a public description outlining commercial intentions for the more than seven acres, Aikens and his partners paid $16.44 in property taxes last year.

The state law that governs this tax anomaly is complex, Comeaux says, and was primarily crafted in the interest of farmers who own vast amounts of land but don’t return as much profit as other commercial ventures. Rewriting the statute without adversely impacting farmers would be difficult and highly unlikely, but Comeaux is confident that new technology in coming months will better locate the property owners abusing the system.

Meanwhile, The Independent Weekly will continue to investigate green-shaded acreage amid the city’s assessment maps. If you see any undeveloped properties that spark your curiosity, give us a call or send an email. We’ll gladly take a look for you.

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