Lease holders, APSB continue war of words over 16th Section camps

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Signs on Avoyelles Parish School Board 16th Section property -- like this one at Spring Bayou -- warn visitors they must have a user’s permit and vehicle decal or run the risk of being prosecuted for trespassing.


    “It ain’t over.”
    Those words, spoken by Ryan Juneau, sum up the status of the so-called “16th Section” suit filed by lease holders and users of the Avoyelles School Board camp sites at Spring Bayou and Old River.
    The suit contesting the manner in which the School Board increased lease costs and imposed a “user fee” on all other visitors to board property is still winding its way through the court system.
    The School Board won the last court fight when Judge Billy Bennett dismissed a “writ of mandamus” motion seeking to force the board to conduct individual appraisals on camp sites to determine the appropriate price for a lease.
    The plaintiffs filed a petition for a declaratory judgment in late August. District Attorney Charles Riddle answered that petition on Sept. 11. A court date on the issue has been set for Dec. 11. 
“Notice” signs posted
    Meanwhile, residents in the Spring Bayou area said signs around 16th Section land are being posted by the School Board.
The signs warn visitors that they must have a user’s permit and vehicle decal to be on board property. Violators will be prosecuted for trespassing.
   George Israel, vice president of the Spring Bayou Restoration Team (SBRT) -- a group committed to improving recreation on Spring Bayou -- said the signs raise concerns for him and others involved in that effort.
   “My concern is that people from Avoyelles and the people from other areas that we at SBRT encouraged to visit here are concerned with what is required to not run afoul of the law,” Israel said. 
   He said numerous questions have arisen since the signs were posted “and apparently personnel at the School Board that ordered the signs posted are not interested in answering any questions.” He said he called for answers to some questions and to request a list of the “do’s” and “don’ts” and “they hung up on me.”
   Israel would like to see the School Board print the list of requirements, rules and regulations for using 16th Section lands.
   “If someone comes to the Mansura launch or the Little River launch from North Louisiana to launch, they obviously will not have a ‘decal,’” he said. “Can they launch or park without fear of getting a ticket from who-knows-what enforcement agency, or will it be necessary for such visitors to confine their activities to a launch within the state wildlife management area?”
Lawsuit issues
  The motion for declaratory judgment seeks to have the court find the plaintiffs are correct without the need for a trial on the matter. They argue the board must establish a fair market price on which to base the lease.
   Riddle’s answer contends state law is on the School Board’s side, the board can set any lease price it wants and it is not required to have an appraisal to set that price.
   The lease holders’ argument centers on whether the board’s appraisal was fair, since the only factor considered was whether a site was waterfront or not. Waterfront lots are leased for $1,800 a year and non-waterfront are $1,500. They maintain other pertinent issues should be the actual size of the lot, whether it has road access or boat-only access and whether it has utility service.
    The short answer to the plaintiffs’ motion is that the petition “fails to allege facts which affords a remedy to petitioners in law.”
    A shorter answer: they’re wrong.
   To support his answer, Riddle cites a state law -- which was an “Avoyelles-only” amendment to an act for Lafayette Parish in 2012,  authored by Sen. Eric LaFleur.
   That law states that the “school board of Lafayette or the school board within any parish with a population of not less than 42,000 nor more than 45,000 persons, according to the latest federal decennial census, is authorized to negotiate for the surface lease of any lands to which it has title, custody or possession to any person, firm, corporation or other legal entity without the necessity of advertising for and receiving bids.” 
   Riddle also cites a companion law that states that lease contracts “by a school board within a parish with a population of not less than 42,000 nor more than 45,000 ... that were entered into prior to Jan. 4, 2012, for a term of not more than five years, are hereby ratified and confirmed ... provided that the school board receives consideration proportionate to at least the fair market value for the leases.”
riddle’s Conclusion
  In his summary of the issues, Riddle says the plaintiffs contend the board “shall determine in the negotiation of each lease the fair market rental price based upon other comparable properties. The Avoyelles Parish School Board maintains that this is a totally incorrect reading of the law.”
  In conclusion, Riddle said “There is no law which requires a fair market price based upon other comparable prices. Evidently the Avoyelles Parish School Board did obtain an appraisal. Petitioners disagree with the appraisal. So what? If there is no requirement for the fair market rental price based upon other comparable properties, then there is no basis to question the validity of the appraisals used. Petitioners have failed to state a cause of action for declaratory relief.”
    Juneau said he understands that the School Board can charge any amount they want for leases. 
  “If an appraisal says it is worth $100, they can charge $5,000,” he said. “It’s their property. What we are saying is that they did not properly determine the fair market value of the property before they set the lease price.”
  Andre Caubarreaux of Marksville, who is not a party to the suit but has been assisting the plaintiffs in their efforts, said the School Board’s decision to dramatically increase lease prices has resulted in many camp sites being abandoned or sold.
   “There are camps that have been in a family for five generations that have been abandoned because of this,” Caubarreaux said.
“When this started, the School Board said they HAD to do it because the auditor told them they had to have an appraisal to determine the fair market price,” he said. “So they got an appraisal and it appears to us that the appraiser just put down the price the board members told him they wanted to charge for the leases.
   “Now, the district attorney is saying they really didn’t need an appraisal in the first place,” Caubarreaux continued. “Either they were lying then or they’re lying now.”
    APSD Superintendent Blaine Dauzat said he had no comment on Caubarreaux’s accusation.