Court upholds camp lease hikes

By RAYMOND L. DAYE, Co-Editor

    Increased lease prices for 16th Section camp sites will remain in place when the leases renew July 1, but unhappy lease holders were told they could still challenge the type of appraisal conducted through a regular lawsuit after a hearing  in 12th Judicial District Court this past Wednesday.
    The hearing was on a motion by several lease holders seeking to have the court force the Avoyelles School Board to conduct additional appraisals to determine the fair market value of their camp site leases.
    Judge Billy Bennett ruled that the plaintiffs had not shown that the School Board abused its discretionary authority in the matter. He said the board was told by its auditor that it had to have an appraisal to set a fair market value on which to base the leases charged for the 16th Section camps. It ordered an appraisal be made.
    The motion last Wednesday was on a “writ of mandamus,” which seeks to have a court order the defendant to perform a certain action required by law. It is considered to be an emergency type of legal action filed when time is an important factor -- such as leases expiring June 30.
    Courts have ruled in the past that “mandamus will not lie in matters in which discretion and evaluation of evidence must be exercised.”
    Bennett said plaintiffs could challenge the lease prices through a regular lawsuit, in which the board’s discretionary action could be questioned and evidence evaluated. However, he added, it would be several months  before such a suit could be heard in court.
    Bennett said the plaintiffs disagreed with the type of appraisal that was done, but added that the court does not have the authority on an emergency motion to say the School Board has to conduct individual appraisals on each camp site.
    “That is a question that can be presented for court for another day,” Bennett said.
 
Win-Lose, Lose-Lose
    Bennett opened the hearing by telling plaintiffs that “if you win you can still lose and you can lose and lose.”
    He said state law does not require the School Board to lease for the appraised value. The appraised value of a lot may be $500, but the board could still set a $1,500 lease on the lot.
    If the court ordered the School Board to conduct a separate appraisal on every lot, the cost of the appraisal could be included in the lease price, which would increase that lease amount. Rather than incur the cost of those appraisals, the board could decide to lease all of the Section 16 properties to one entity, the judge added.
    A group of investors has presented an offer to the School Board to lease all of the Section 16 tracts.
    Bennett gave plaintiffs an opportunity to withdraw from the suit, based on his description of likely outcomes.
    After a 20-minute discussion in the hall with their attorney, Ricky Sooter, the plaintiffs returned to court. Five of those present elected to withdraw, with one saying “It doesn’t make any sense. We can’t win.”
 
'Mandamus’ arguments
     District Attorney Charles Riddle argued that the “writ of mandamus” action was improper because the court cannot force the School Board to make a specific decision.
     “The School Board has tremendous discretion in how it can act,” Riddle said.
     He said the action challenging the method of appraisal ordered and approved by the board, and its action to reject a motion to order a second “4-tiered” appraisal, are not appropriate subjects for this type of legal motion. 
     “‘Mandamus’ would apply if the plaintiff properly executed a lease and paid that lease and the superintendent decided he would not sign the lease,” Riddle said. The refusal to sign would be an administrative act required by law and the court could then order that the superintendent follow the law and sign the lease.
     Riddle argued that the decision on ordering the appraisal or refusing to order a second appraisal is not something the court can address under the “mandamus” motion.
     Sooter said the basis of the motion was that the board did not follow the law in setting the value based on comparable properties. He said leases were set at $1,500 or $1,800, based only on whether they were on the waterfront or not. Other factors such as ease of access to the property, utilities on the property and size of the lot were not considered.
     He said language in the law notes “each lease” and “shall,” which he says means it is mandatory that the fair value be set on each individual lease and not through an appraisal that treats all sites equally even when they are not comparable.
     Bennett said the law does not require an appraisal to determine the fair market value. He said the fair market value is the  agreed upon price by a well-informed lessee and well-informed lessor.
     Riddle also pointed out that the law cited by Sooter was amended to specifically exempt Avoyelles Parish in 2012 by noting that any parish with a 2010 Census population of between 42,000 and 45,000 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.”
      In his summary remarks, Bennett told board members in attendance that they “did what they had to” to comply with an audit finding that leases had to be at least fair market value.
      He told the plaintiffs that filled the courtroom that “you can contest the price of the leases in a regular lawsuit,” but that issue could not be decided in the emergency motion.
      As the crowd filed out the courtroom door, one plaintiff commented loudly, “We’ll be back.”

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