Zurik: An ugly property dispute on Bayou Lacombe

Zurik: An ugly property dispute on Bayou Lacombe
An aerial photo of the property on Bayou Lacombe, with one of the barge wrecks visible on the right. Photo: John Snell
An aerial photo of the property on Bayou Lacombe, with one of the barge wrecks visible on the right. Photo: John Snell
A close-up of some of the wreckage in Bayou Lacombe. Photo: John Snell
A close-up of some of the wreckage in Bayou Lacombe. Photo: John Snell
Bayou Lacombe, snaking past the Green property. Photo: John Snell
Bayou Lacombe, snaking past the Green property. Photo: John Snell
Aerial view over Bayou Lacombe near the town of Lacombe. Photo: John Snell
Aerial view over Bayou Lacombe near the town of Lacombe. Photo: John Snell

LACOMBE, LA (WVUE) - Two sunken barges and an abandoned sailboat sit in the placid waters of Bayou Lacombe. Toss in the rich green of the surrounding wetlands and the country quiet and you have a stunning scene, worthy of a postcard - and every taxpayer in the country helped pay for the view.

“Something's not right with this picture,” says Rick Franzo of the group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany.

“It's crazy,” says Cindy Rester, an associate of Franzo's and a local realtor.

That scene is just part of the $1.3 million deal for 26 acres of property - only four acres of actual land - in central St. Tammany Parish.

“It appears to be a big waste of money,” Franzo says.

From a boat and even from a helicopter above, the scenery can be breathtaking. But to these taxpayers, the numbers don't add up.

“Why would you spend $1.335 million on land that is worthless?” Franzo wonders

Rester, who says she's worked in St. Tammany real estate for 15 years, says this deal makes no sense for taxpayers. “Very over-inflated,” she calls it.

In 2009, the parish received an appraisal on the property. The appraiser valued the land at $735,000, but increased the total value by $600,000. The reason: The total appraisal is based on the property being developed into a subdivision, selling for $390,000 per lot.

Rester says such property was never likely to sell for $300,000 per property. In fact, the parish had no intention of developing the property - but it still paid that premium.“You couldn't get an approval to do a subdivision,” Rester insists.

“The parish purchased the property based on the appraisal, and the appraisal was done by its best use,” says Ronnie Simpson, parish government's public information director.

But just because it's appraised at that amount, does that mean the parish had to take the deal at that amount?

“That's a good question,” Simpson responds.

It's a question that Pat Brister's administration can't answer because they didn't buy it – they inherited this property and the deal from the prior parish president, Kevin Davis. The property was owned by the Green family. For much of the time they owned the property, they paid little in taxes. Look at 2009, when the property had a value of just $770. The total tax bill was $12.59.

“If this land is worth 1.335 million dollars, why are they paying 12 dollars a year in taxes?” Franzo asks.

In 2010, right before the parish bought it, the assessed value of the land shot up to $164,700 - still not close to the $1.3 million the parish paid.

“You got 26 acres, 19's wet,” says Jake Groby, parish councilman for Lacombe. “They paid 1.335 million – they being the federal [taxpayers], through the parish - for no public benefit. And it does not make sense.”

Groby notes the last time the property was in use was in the early 80's. “So there was no compelling reason,” he says, “not like somebody was going to rush down to build on that land or do anything with it.”

The parish got a federal grant to purchase the property. The selling point, redevelopment, would “preserve wetlands portions of the property for habitat, and provide floodplain protection.”

“The grant request was to preserve and restore,” Groby says. “The only way to restore that land is get all the debris and the barges and everything off of it. All the money, as far as I can see except for a small amount, was used to purchase it. Where's the money going to come from?”

Nearly four years after buying the property, the barges remain. An environmental assessment recommended that the two barges be recycled and for the parish to “consult with a marine salvage contractor for the best methods of removal.” The assessment also called for the abandoned equipment to be removed and recycled, if possible.

“Why did we not make the land owners clean it up?” Groby asks.

Instead, Groby and the group Concerned Citizens for St. Tammany Parish say the parish bought the land, the barges, and a liability.

“You and I can go jump off that barge now and have nice lawsuits against St. Tammany Parish,” Franzo warns.

Franzo says a skier ran into one of the barges in 1970 and actually sued the property owner.

“We have an obligation to make sure that everything is safe,” Simpson tells us. “We have an obligation for all of our properties, whether it be here on Koop Drive or Camp Salmen or on the fishing pier or wherever, to make sure, if people are going to access it, that it is safe.”

Even though that environmental assessment says the barges should be removed, the parish is now saying they may stay. “The idea is to possibly keep the barges where they are,” Simpson says. “It would cause more of a disturbance, more of an impact on the property if we had to pull them out, because we'd have to pull them out over land. So the money's there to do the remediation.”

The citizens of Lacombe now need to figure out what to do with the land. It could be developed into some type of walking trail.

“There's a property that has the potential of adding value to the community, eventually,” Simpson says. “However we are preserving that property. It's being taken out of commerce so that the wetlands aren't disturbed, the natural habitat is not disturbed.”

Simpson stressed that community input is needed to determine the land's ultimate use. What is clear is that the parish will never develop the property as a subdivision, and likely will never capitalize on the hefty price it paid for this peninsula in the middle of the bayou.

"Can we do something with the property? Sure, it's be nice to do something with the property," Franzo acknowledges. "But I'm really upset that they would spend $1.335 million on land that is far not worth that kind of money."

Copyright 2015 WVUE. All rights reserved.