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An impassioned appeal failed to stop a controversial car dealership project in a flood-prone neighborhood 

▸ The gist: Residents in a neighborhood hard hit in the 2016 floods appealed the approval of plats for a new car dealership parking lot that cuts deep into a mostly residential area. Despite an emotional plea, the City-Parish Council denied the appeal.

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▸ A little background: The site in question was rezoned in January, on recommendation of the city’s planning department, from agricultural to commercial heavy to allow the project to go forward. Tuesday’s appeal targeted approval of the project’s preliminary and final plats. Exasperated, residents of the Canberra neighborhood described the long shot appeal as their last stand.

▸ What’s the big deal? Canberra residents report that stormwaters have risen in the last decade or so due to rapid development, in particular several car dealerships that have popped up along south Johnston Street and South City Parkway. The primary concern is that a new parking lot — reportedly seven acres of new concrete — will overmatch the area’s drainage coulee, which residents say can’t handle any more runoff. It is odd that the development got the green light given the widespread recognition of the relationship between expanding concrete and Lafayette’s drainage problems. Beyond drainage, they say the lot will be a nuisance, an eyesore and will tank property values. “Will you buy my house?” a resident shouted at the council from the back row.

▸ A stunning silence: After hearing testimony from enraged residents for an hour, the council sat in a loud silence. A vote requires a motion, and reluctance to make one in the face of seething anger settled on the councilmen. Councilman William Theriot awkwardly broke the spell, set the vote in motion and cast the only vote in support of the appeal. Residents applauded him and castigated Liz Hebert, their district representative.

▸ What to watch for: This still isn’t quite over. Developer Fabre Realty will next produce a drainage impact analysis to be approved by the city. A wrinkle in this story is that the developer faces new drainage regulations that require the lot to reduce runoff rate in the area by 15 percent of the pre-development rate, not an easy feat for seven acres of concrete. Earlier this year, the developer told The Advocate that he didn’t yet know how much it would cost to comply with the new drainage regs. The lot represents a test of the city’s regulatory approach to solving the ongoing drainage crisis.

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Robideaux sought to avoid a ‘public spectacle’ in selecting an old federal courthouse developer

▸ The gist: Last week, The Advocate broke the news that Mayor Joel Robideaux chose a team led by developer Jim Poche to redevelop the long-vacant old federal courthouse Downtown. Robideaux’s choice and the decision to forego a public process raised some eyebrows, but other applicants and stakeholders say there was nothing unseemly about the decision. ▸ Some background: Five teams applied for the project, […]

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Population growth has slowed around Acadiana for the first time in years

The gist: Annual estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show across-the-board declines in growth speed, and shrinking populations, in and around Lafayette from 2016-2017.

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Lafayette is the biggest loser. The city lost 581 residents in the estimate. That’s not a horrendous bleed, but against the backdrop of rapid growth since 2010, the contraction is concerning. Lafayette’s population estimate is 126,848. It’s worth noting that these numbers aren’t confirmed and won’t be until the 2020 census is released. The numbers could be wrong in either direction.

Broussard, Youngsville and Carencro continued to add residents but at a slower pace. Youngsville’s overall growth since the 2010 census is an astronomical 65 percent. Broussard added 502 residents. Carencro added 192. Here is how the changes shake down:

Area Population (Est.) Change
Broussard 12,042 +502
Carencro 8,973 +192
Duson 1,780 -2
Lafayette 126,848 -581
Scott 8,768 -47
Youngsville 13,424 +479
Unincorporated Lafayette 70,650 +196
Lafayette Parish 242,485 -739
Lafayette MSA 491,558 -88

What it all means: Leafing through the figures, the inflection year appears to be 2015, just after the price of oil collapsed. Lafayette’s Metropolitan Statistical Area grew rapidly over the first half of this decade — in 2013 Acadia, Iberia and Vermilion parishes joined the existing Lafayette/St. Martin MSA — while many other MSAs across the country suffered in the wake of the mortgage crisis of 2008. The region’s economy was buoyed by a strong oil market.

However, as the most recent figures show, Lafayette’s MSA posted a small decline to 491,558. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a rounding error. But the overall trend remains troubling.

As noted in The Advertiser, this certainly fuels concern that the citizens of Lafayette could lose control over their self-determination. As more people move into other municipalities or unincorporated portions of the parish, Lafayette’s power on the City-Parish Council will diminish. This is information that will arm the #Lafayexit battle cry.

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LCAT’s Michael Lunsford is going full-time at Citizens for a New Louisiana

The gist: Lunsford is leaving his day job selling web services for Comit Developers to run nascent, conservative advocacy Citizens for a New Louisiana full-time as its executive director. He said in an email his new gig starts June 1.

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A little background Lunsford is more visibly associated with the anti-tax Facebook group Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes. LCAT has been extremely active in local election cycles, successfully killing recent tax measures. Citizens for a New Louisiana is a brick and mortar outgrowth of that effort.

The new organization is a 501(c)(4), a type of nonprofit that can receive donations without disclosing its donors. That anonymous pipeline of cash is often called “dark money.” Citizens spent $21,500 on a campaign to fight the renewal of a property tax that paid a portion of the parish library system’s revenue.

Why does this matter? Curiously, Lunsford has tended to downplay his leadership at LCAT. “I’m an unpaid volunteer,” he told me in April. He’s characterized himself as a part-time soldier, “the researcher,” a mere servant to the cause. Now he’s entrenched full-time. That indicates sustained revenue and sustained activity in Lafayette politics and — potentially — a wider geographic reach.

Lunsford’s advocacy has made a big impact since LCAT went live. LCAT successfully killed last year’s school tax — with the help of another war-chest of dark money — despite considerable weight thrown behind the tax by One Acadiana. Since then, there’s arisen no equal and opposite force to LCAT’s advocacy.

In the next election cycle, Lafayette Parish will deliberate three new taxes: Two property taxes for the parish courthouse and jail proposed by the City-Parish Council and a parishwide sales tax put forth by Sheriff Mark Garber to fund new patrol hires. 

Garber intends to raise $300,000 to fund a campaign for the law enforcement sales tax, and he’s hired political consultants The Picard Group to assist in the effort. Beyond the councilmen lobbying for the property tax efforts, no other champion for those measures has emerged.

While it’s unclear exactly what Citizens for a New Louisiana’s operational scope is, it’s a safe bet the organization will mobilize against at least some of these efforts..

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Gov. Edwards launches a statewide watershed management council

The gist: The governor created a statewide office to spearhead watershed management called the Council on Watershed Management. He signed an executive order creating the council at a meeting of the Acadiana Planning Commission, which he touted as an example of regional coordination in water management.

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Coordination is the new black. There’s a growing recognition among policy makers that flood and stormwater management can’t be handled at the local level. Water has a tendency to go wherever it wants, flaunting city and parish boundaries. The state council will, ostensibly, follow a model of cross-jurisdictional coordination similar to that employed by APC.

APC took a regional partnership approach in administering a $25 million FEMA grant awarded to the Acadiana region in the wake of the 2016 floods.

Dredge the Vermilion. Dredge up conflict. The governor’s announcement paralleled news that Congress has authorized the dredging of the Vermilion River. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has requested emergency funding to speed along federal revenue that otherwise could take years to materialize.

Dredging the Vermilion is precisely the sort of project that could rile up division among neighboring jurisdictions. Homeowners and elected officials in Lafayette have clamored for the river to be dredged, arguing that a shallow riverbed worsened the floods of 2016. Combined with Lafayette Consolidated Government’s drainage maintenance program, dredging would tend to move more water downstream faster.

“The Vermilion River, to me, is at capacity,” Vermilion Parish President Kevin Sagrera told The Advocate. “When the water comes down, it’s got to come over the banks and go out into residential areas.”

Study first. Do no harm. That should be the more important lesson learned from APC’s approach. If anything, you could criticize the Acadiana effort for being too conservative. Most of the projects are retention and detention ponds that hold water rather than move it around.

Before further work is done, APC has moved to study watershed impact first.

“I’d like to have the science before we do anything else, so we know what we’re doing,” APC CEO Monique Boulet told me.

The commission has prioritized a plan to deploy 230 gauges across regional waterways. Just weeks ago, UL Lafayette created a flood research center. Researchers with the center helped develop APC’s gauge deployment strategy.

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Marshal Pope fails in bid to suppress emails in his criminal trial

The gist: Embattled City Marshal Brian Pope argued that emails which led to his indictment on seven felony charges were not public record and should not be admitted as evidence in his trial for those crimes. The district court denied Pope’s motion to suppress the emails. They will be used in his trial.

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Some background: The emails in question were obtained by defunct news outlet The Independent in a public records dispute that arose during the 2015 sheriff’s election. That year, Pope staged an official marshal’s press conference to attack Mark Garber, then a candidate for Lafayette Parish sheriff. The email records later proved the press conference was scripted by Joe Castille, a shadowy political consultant who ran the campaign of Garber’s opponent, Chad Leger.

Pope himself did not give up all the emails requested. The Independent made parallel requests to the marshal’s office and to Lafayette Consolidated Government, which maintains the marshal’s email server. LCG’s cache of emails included records of Castille’s involvement in the press conference, indicating that Pope had illegally deleted or omitted the emails in his own production of records.

Pope’s attorneys argued that LCG unlawfully seized the records.

District Judge Jules Edwards III, who presided over the civil dispute between The Independent and Pope, held Pope in contempt for failing to turn over the records, ruling that the emails were indeed public record. Edwards later threw Pope in jail for violating his probation.

“They’re public records because Judge Edwards says they are,” responded prosecutor Alan Haney. “You can’t suppress a public record. He wants you to use the law to hide what he was doing.” Clearly, District Judge David Smith agreed with him.

The trial will likely take place in Lafayette Parish. At least that’s the early indication. Pope’s attorneys sought to move the trial out of the area on the grounds that Pope couldn’t get a fair trial in light of “mountainous” negative press.

Again, ADA Haney: “If they can try [serial killer] Derrick Todd Lee in East Baton Rouge Parish, they can try Brian Pope in Lafayette Parish.”

Haney argued Pope brought the press on himself by virtue of his own misbehavior. Most stories in the mountain of clippings, he said, were factual.

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Waitr affirms commitment to Lafayette after acquisition by a Texas billionaire

The gist: The news broke this week that app-based food delivery service Waitr was acquired by a Texas billionaire in a $308 million deal that will take the company public. CEO Chris Meaux says the company intends to expand operations in Louisiana and will continue to call Lafayette and Lake Charles home.

Meaux tells The Current…“We’re committed to Lake Charles and Lafayette; that’s where the bulk of our employee base is from a corporate perspective. We’re committed to Louisiana. This is gonna remain our home and that was an important factor in this deal.” Waitr’s management staff will remain the same, with Meaux continuing to serve as CEO. He also will be the newly public company’s board chairman.

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You can breathe now: In the immediate wake of the acquisition, it wasn’t particularly clear where Waitr would end up. It’s now owned by Texas billionaire Tillman Fertitta, the CEO of seafood restaurant chain Landry’s. Fertitta also owns the Golden Nugget Casino in Lake Charles.

Waitr is a major success story for Acadiana and Lake Charles. Losing its growing payroll and employment would have been a huge blow for a down and out Lafayette economy. Waitr employs between 400 and 500 people in Acadiana, including drivers, and accounts for roughly $25 million in annual payroll in Louisiana, according to a rough estimate from Meaux.

What to watch for: The acquisition will accelerate Waitr’s growth rapidly. Before the deal, Waitr was projected to double its revenue next year to $250 million. Capital infusion of this scale will put Waitr in the driver’s seat nationally in the app-based food delivery space in secondary markets. Meaux says the company will add three or four new cities to its portfolio per month and begin buying up smaller competitors. The company will continue to emphasize small and mid-size cities in its growth and marketing strategy. Meaux refers to Waitr as a “small town company.”

Locally, Meaux says the company is expanding beyond its offices at The Daily Advertiser building on Bertrand Drive. One possible landing spot is the Lemoine building Downtown. Meaux indicates the company is close to deciding on a site, but would not disclose where it would end up. Meaux says the company will continue to hire more software engineers, customer service reps and restaurant support staff going forward. Lafayette is Waitr’s software engineering hub.

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Gov. Edwards appeared at UHC to stump for a fix to the state’s budget crisis

The gist: Edwards held a press conference at UHC to highlight the impact of a budget impasse in the state legislature. The budget currently working its way through the legislature imposes steep cuts to healthcare and the apparent damage could be devastating. UHC officials have warned that the hospital would effectively shut down if a budget deal doesn’t fund the partnership that operates it. Just last week, 37,000 patients in medicaid funded nursing home care were alerted that their coverage may disappear.

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”It shouldn’t be this hard” was Edwards basic message exhorting lawmakers to put aside politicking and sort out a proper budget. Edwards rallied local firepower behind that message. Richard Zuschlag, CEO of Acadian Companies, set the governor up with an emotional appeal for bipartisanship to solve the budget crisis:

“Failure to do so would cause a catastrophic healthcare crisis,” Zuschlag said. “This isn’t about Republicans and Democrats. It’s about the people of Acadiana.”

Zuschlag also penned a #SaveUHC letter in The Advocate. 

The state needs to close the gap on $648 million in lost revenue this session because a temporary sales tax will expire.  Edwards noted that number would climb if the partner hospitals close; the state receives $168 million in lease payments from its private partners like Lafayette General Health, which operates UHC. Edwards said running the state’s partner hospitals costs about $200 million annually.

Indeed, it’s argued that losing UHC would crush Acadiana economically, potentially siphoning off $70 million in lost money.

What does Edwards want? Long term, he says he wants a stable budget process. Right now, he’s asking for a portion of that one-penny temporary sales tax to stay on the books. He said today that will fully fund essential services and reduce tax collections by $400 million.

But isn’t this really about politics? It’s hard to see it any other way. For a bipartisan appeal, Edwards spent a lot of time in his remarks raking legislators over the coals for failing to create a sustainable budget structure over the past two years of special sessions and partisan haranguing.

On the right, folks will tell you that Edwards is fear-mongering — Rep. Nancy Landry used that word exactly in a tweet — and that no one believes that the budget as written will go forward.

But, there’s talk out there that Republican lawmakers simply don’t want a Democratic governor to have a win. Edwards said there are legislators “praying for others to have the courage to do the right thing” so healthcare can be restored to full funding while they quietly vote against raising revenue.

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Carlee Alm-LaBar is leaving her post as planning director

The gist: Alm-LaBar has given notice that she will leave her post as director of Lafayette Consolidated Government’s Development and Planning Department, effective June 22, to take a planning position with Southern Lifestyle Development, a Lafayette-based real estate group known for traditional neighborhood developments like River Ranch.

Who is she and why is this a big deal? Alm-LaBar was one of a few holdovers from the administration of Joey Durel. She last served as chief development officer in that administration, a position Robideaux eliminated upon taking office.

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In her eight years with LCG, Alm-LaBar spearheaded the development of the Unified Development Code and PlanLafayette, pushing city-parish government toward modernized urban planning. She also led the Evangeline Thruway Redevelopment Team, a committee charged with planning and redevelopment efforts in the neighborhoods inside the future impact zone of the I-49 Connector.

Robideaux’s policies Downtown and in the city’s urban core arguably reflect Alm-LaBar’s influence.

What to watch for: Robideaux’s administration has now lost two experienced and respected directors this spring — Alm-LaBar and [LUS chief Terry Huval] — and three in total, counting the departure of Public Works Director Tom Carroll last year. Replacing Huval and Alm-LaBar will be an important task for Robideaux’s administration and will give some indication of his administrative vision.

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Lynda Frese: A figure in the natural world

Exploring the meaning of sacred space

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Downtown is running out of sewer capacity That’s another roadblock for redeveloping the Old Federal Courthouse

Not long after the city received and released ideas for the Old Federal Courthouse from five interested developers, it surfaces that Downtown may not have the sewer capacity to serve their ambitions.

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Cashing in on blockchain What does that mean for Lafayette?

The mayor’s cryptocurrency cash grab took the lead in local day-after headlines, but it may be worth paying more attention to his interest in blockchain

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