Appraisals questioned in buyouts near sewer plant

For almost two decades, people living near the North Baton Rouge Waste Water Treatment Plant fought the city-parish, demanding to be relocated away from the odorous facility.

After years of litigation and Metro Council battles, an agreement was struck, and early this month, 36 offers were made to homeowners in the University Place subdivision.

While about half have been accepted, some homeowners say the city-parish is being unfair and unrealistic. Another five offers have yet to be made.

City-parish-employed appraisers valued Robert and Shirley Jackson’s home, which is two streets away from the plant, at $75,000. The city-parish also agreed to pay the couple up to $42,000 for a total of $117,000 to ensure they get into a home comparable to their current one.

But Robert Jackson said there’s nothing on the market comparable to their house for $118,000. The Jacksons have lived in their 1,400-square-foot home since 1971. In recent years, they have invested more than $20,000 worth of renovations and upgrades, including new flooring, electrical work and fixtures, and turning an unused bedroom into additional living space.

“Fair, in this day and age, is $150,000,” Robert Jackson said. “We asked if they could bump us up another $10,000 and we’d make up the difference, but they said, ‘Absolutely not, and if you refuse, we’ll force you out of your home.’ ’’

In total, 41 families will be relocated from their properties. The city-parish is also purchasing 19 vacant lots in the area. For 17 years, the residents of University Place pursued litigation against the city-parish, seeking relocation costs and damages as a result of the decision to expand the sewer plant in the 1980s to abut their neighborhood. Previously, the neighborhood bordered a park. The courts ultimately sided with the city-parish.

But early this year, the Metro Council approved a public project to build a buffer of greenery around the sewer plant that would block the neighbors from the unsightly facility and absorb some of the odors.

The decision to build a public project enabled the city-parish to relocate the residents, but it also means that residents who don’t want to move or who object to the offers may ultimately be ousted by expropriation.

George Francis, who is representing his mother, Willene Brock, in her dealings with the city-parish, said his mother’s four-bedroom home was valued at $73,700. She was offered another $46,300 in relocation costs to ensure she gets into a comparable home.

Francis believes his mother can find a suitable home for $120,000 but is concerned the documentation he’s being asked to sign doesn’t guarantee his mother will receive the relocation costs.

“They’re asking the residents to trust us that we’ll give you these payments,” Francis said. “Well, the residents have been trusting them for the last 20 years, so in my opinion, the trust needs to be put down on paper.”

Bob Abbott, assistant parish attorney, said the city-parish is federally required to provide the relocation costs. He said federal provisions cap the relocation costs at $26,000 per property to ensure people are relocated into comparable homes. But in the case of the University Place relocation, he said, almost every homeowner has qualified for provisions that require the city to exceed the cap.

According to relocation guidelines, the city-parish must ensure that the homeowners can afford a home that is considered “decent, safe and sanitary” and meets the needs of the family. For example, if four children and a parent are living in a two-bedroom home, then the relocation funds would provide money to buy a house with more bedrooms.

“In some cases, the homeowners will come out a lot better,” said William Daniel, chief administrative officer to Mayor-President Kip Holden. “It’s not a perfect system, but it’s the fairest and best possible way to do this.”

Residents are also questioning why the appraisals came in so low. Greg Mitchell, a spokesman for the residents, asked the city-parish to use the appraisal firm Kermit Williams, which did favorable appraisals on the homes in 2010.

Both times the company did the appraisals it was instructed to value the homes as if they were not located next to a sewer plant. But many homeowners were dismayed that their appraisals came in sometimes 25 percent lower than the previous appraisals.

Francis’ mother’s home was appraised at $101,000 in 2010.

Mitchell’s mother’s home was appraised at $103,000 in 2010, and then $85,000 in the most recent appraisal.

They said it’s unlikely the homes could have depreciated that much in three years.

Daniel noted that, when Kermit Williams did its initial appraisals, the company was working for the residents and not the city-parish. He said the city-parish had two firms do appraisals and takes the highest value. The appraisals also have to hold up in court, should the values be challenged by the homeowners.

He also said the appraisals are effectively irrelevant, because regardless of the value of the homes, the city-parish has to pay additional relocation costs to provide for a comparable home, which in most cases is going to be several thousands of dollars more than the original home.

The total appraised values of all of the properties came in at $3,677,333. But the estimate for the total relocation — which includes the cost for relocation, demolition and the appraisal services — is $5.6 million. The project is being paid for by the Sanitary Sewer Overflow plan, which is funded with revenues from a half-cent sales tax and sewer user fees.

While homeowners can challenge the offers, ultimately the city-parish will take their homes, Abbott said.

But he cautioned that challenging an expropriation not only stalls the buffer project, but could mean some of the city-parish’s payments to the homeowner would end up being expended on legal fees.

The buffer project was written into the city-parish’s federal consent decree to fix the crumbling sewer system, which means the city-parish is required to either have relocated the residents or filed the expropriation suits by January 2015.