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.
MAY 23 Here's a story in the Picayune about some statistics that must come as a blow to folks who believe that any private school can do a better job of educating kids than any public school: Danielle Dreilinger reports that only 30 percent of the voucher kids are passing. That's less than half of the state wide average, she says. It's an interesting statistic because most of the schools (if not all) taking voucher kids have never had their students' standardized test scores released to the public before.
MAY 23 Stephen Sabludowsky blogs on Bayou Buzz about auditor requests here. Recently the state GOP started crowing about a request from the Legislative Auditor, claiming they were being targeted because of their anti-tax stance. (Uh, your what?) Denial and hyperbole aside, the state Democratic party blew holes in that theory with an email announcing they'd received the same request, Sabludowsky writes here.
MAY 23 Jim Brown blogs about the senate race in this post. He says that, given Bobby Jindal's "lack of traction" on the national stage, it might make more sense for the governor to consider running against Mary Landrieu for the senate seat. Since Tim Teeple left the Cassidy team, it makes sense he might land on a Jindal for Senate team, Brown opines.
MAY 23 In this Louisiana Voice post, blogger Tom Aswell writes of rumors that his nemesis, state Superintendent of Education John White, may be soon departing Louisiana for a federal post. It's hard to believe, given his performance, Aswell says, but stranger things have happened. An anti-White BESE member says that, if true, White is quitting before he can be fired.
MAY 23 In this post on American Zombie, blogger Jason Berry writes about the Mother's Day shooting. Mayor Landrieu said that "this is not who we are," but the fact is, this is New Orleans, Berry writes. The violence infused in the city is the result of a culture created by "sins of omission or sins of commission," Berry writes. It's not a problem that can be solved by legislating, policing, praying or publicizing, he says: Someone's got to understand what's happening first.
MAY 23 This post in the Westside Journal tells us what Port Allen Mayor Deedy has been up to lately: vetoing ordinances, apparently. This story is most interesting, however, when it delves into a petition that has been circulating around the city lately. It accuses the former mayor of a lot of nasty things; the former mayor says it is full of lies and "broken syntax" which may be a larger offense in his eyes.
MAY 23 This editorial posted in The Advocate is a bit confusing. The writing is poor - definitely not up to the usual editorial writing standard there - and the point is hard to grasp. Apparently, the writer is saying that privatization of state efforts is OK, as long as there is oversight and transparency, but Jindal's not good at that, and the legislature shouldn't over-react. Okey Dokey. Can't they get one of them Pulitzer-winning people to write an editorial?
MAY 23 This post on The Lens gives you links to a new Google Earth tool that allows you to see any spot on earth transform over the past 30 years. Bob Marshall, who covers the coast for the paper, says that in the case of Louisiana's coastline, it's possibly something you don't want to see, because it's not a pretty picture. There are several clips here, showing critical areas erode away. For Marshall, it was vindication for all those times he was met with eye-rolling when he talked about erosion.
There will soon be a whole lot of shakin’ going on at Benny’s Sportshack Supplement Depot, a new concept by Opelousas native Benny Nele. Located at 2002 Johnston St., the supplement shop, smoothie bar and café, featuring hot off the press paninis and wraps, plans to open in late May.
Philip deMahy Sr., a once respected New Iberia ad exec, was sentenced May 2 to spend the next two years (he faced up to 100 years) in a state penitentiary after state and federal investigators found dozens of images depicting children engaged in lewd sexual acts on his personal computer.