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 21 Gambit columnist Clancy DuBos writes about the Mother's Day shooting, and how the stages of shock and blame and healing mirror those traveled by the same city following Hurricane Katrina. The city will recover, just as it did following the storm, by reaching out to help the people injured most seriously by the event, DuBos writes. It's how we heal, he says.
MAY 21 Here's a post on the Advocate (but buried on a subpage, not on the front) that reports something Louisiana Voice reported some time ago: a top DOE official lives in Los Angeles and "commutes" to Baton Rouge. The positioning of the story caused a stir on Facebook Monday, with several posters asking if the Advocate was covering someone's hiney. Sentell's stories on DOE are notoriously soft, and this one is no different: don't expect any hard questions in here.
MAY 21 Here's another post from blogger Tom Aswell about the "course choice" program. He's already reported on kids being signed up without their consent or knowledge, and has more here: For example, he tells of a six-year-old who was signed up for high school Latin. He also digs a little deeper into the sister companies of the main one operating in Louisiana; all of them seem to have complaints against them. Stinky.
MAY 21 Given the 80 percent cut in higher ed funding since he's been in office, it's clear Gov. Jindal would rather give tax cuts to out of state companies than have a functioning system, blogger Dayne Sherman argues in this post. The cuts have been such a disaster, Sherman says, that it will take 30 years to fix what's been broken. He says he believes the aim is to shut down most of the schools before Jindal leaves in 2016.
MAY 21 Blogger CB Forgotston says there are too many elections in Louisiana, and they're costing us too much money. The proof is in the pudding: turnout for most of these nonsensical pollings gets worse and worse, CB opines, even as millions of dollars that could be spent on health care or higher ed go down the tubes. The legislature must take action to stem the tide of pointless elections, he says.
MAY 21 Here's an interesting investigative piece by WVUE on the retirement benefits of some Jefferson Parish public employees. According to the story, the taxpayers are paying 100 percent of the retirement contributions of employees who started work prior to a certain date in April 1986 -- and have done for more than 30 years. It costs the parish millions annually, and might not be legal, the story reports.
MAY 21 This post on Bayou Buzz provides insight from Louisiana's intrepid pollster, Bernie Pinsonat, on the winners and losers from this year's legislative session. But to hear Bernie tell it, there's almost nuttin but losers: Jindal, the Republican party, the Fiscal Hawks all get big goose eggs in his win column.
MAY 20 This post on The Lens takes a look at a huge (either $500K or $250K) bill that one NOLA charter now has for school lunches. The RSD says the charter group didn't fill out the proper paperwork for federal reimbursement, but the story details how the RSD didn't ensure the people running the charter had the proper training, despite requests from hapless charter employees trying to fill out forms. Either way, somebody's asleep at the wheel.
David Calhoun and Elizabeth “EB” Brooks are the first two employees of Lafayette Central Park Inc., the nonprofit charged with turning Lafayette Consolidated Government’s 100-acre Johnston Street Horse Farm property into a passive public park. Calhoun was named executive director, and Brooks is director of planning and design.
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.