Inside Report: Coca-Cola sign ruckus hinges on technicality

The iconic Coca-Cola sign in downtown Baton Rouge is uncovered, and the light has been turned back on.

But the issue of ownership is still unresolved and likely will come down to a legal technicality.

The key question, according to a property law professor, is this: Would removing the sign cause it or the building substantial damage?

The sign was shrouded late last month by the building’s owner, Mike Crouch, who contends he should be compensated for ad space, maintenance costs and insurance.

It was uncovered after a few days as the public outcry against Crouch and concerns about the safety of the antique sign grew.

The Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge contends it owns the sign because it was donated more than a decade ago by the building’s former owner.

The council has the documentation to prove it: an Act of Donation from 2002 signed by Pete Richoux, a former owner of the building.

The Act of Donation notes that Richoux was donating the sign to the Arts Council for preservation and the Downtown Business Association would assist with maintenance and utility costs.

But an Act of Donation of an immovable property, to be legally valid, must be notarized and have signatures from two witnesses.

This Act of Donation had neither.

Chris Odinet, a property law professor at the Southern University Law Center, said if the sign is considered a “movable” piece of property, then it wouldn’t require the witness or notary.

But if it is considered an “immovable” component of the building, then it would have to meet the additional requirements.

“If it’s just a movable thing, then it could have been donated without even putting anything into writing. So the donation would have been valid, and the sign would have been transferred to the Arts Council,” Odinet said. “So the crux of this question comes down to whether the sign is attached to the building to such a degree that, if it were removed, it would cause substantial damage to either the sign or the building.”

Both representatives for Crouch and the Arts Council have been reluctant to debate the issue in public.

But Eric Holowacz, president of the Arts Council, responded to questions with a picture of the Coca-Cola sign from 2002 being moved through the air with a crane.

He declined additional comment.

Crouch’s camp also has been reluctant to comment.

His attorney James Clary Jr. said in an email: “Other than confirming that Mr. Crouch continues to cooperate in a healthy, productive and respectful dialogue among the interested stakeholders in this historic Coca-Cola sign’s preservation and confirming that the current illumination of that sign is tangible evidence of that cooperation, Mr. Crouch feels it would be inappropriate to comment further in any detail at this time. He has said from the very beginning that all would be well with reference to this venerable landmark and that still remains his position.”

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz