Services, revenue causing rise in Lafayette annexations

The allure of fast Internet and other municipal services, coupled with new regulations that make it more difficult to develop in the parish countryside, have been driving increased annexations by the city of Lafayette.

The Lafayette City-Parish Council on Tuesday is set to vote on annexing future phases of the growing Stonehaven on the River development and surrounding areas, a move that would add 448 acres to the city’s footprint just south of the Acadiana Mall along Johnston Street.

It would be one of the larger annexations in recent history and would cap a trend that began four years ago after a decade-long lull in the city’s efforts to expand its reach.

In 2008, the city annexed no property and added only 11 acres in 2009.

But from 2010 to now, the annexation figure totals more than 2,500 acres, not counting the 448 acres up for a vote next week, according to figures from city-parish government.

“There is no doubt that we have stepped it up,” said City-Parish President Joey Durel.

Lafayette Parish is governed by a consolidated city-parish government, but the city limits remain a stark boundary.

While some rural dwellers enjoy water supplied from the wells of the city-owned Lafayette Utilities System, most other city amenities end at the city limits. Those services include police protection, the protection of a full-time fire department, municipal sewer service, curbside recycling and the lightning-fast Internet connections offered by the city’s LUS Fiber fiber-optic service.

Durel said folks who snap up rural homes at a good price, not to mention low property taxes, might not realize what they’re giving up.

“They don’t recognize that they are going to have well water or yellow water or a sewer plant that makes noise all night,” he said.

City-parish officials say the launch of LUS Fiber in 2009 has made life in a city a bit more attractive, as the fiber-optic Internet service offers speeds as fast as 1 gigabit for residential customers.

“They don’t get fiber without being in the city of Lafayette,” said City-Parish Annexation Coordinator Frank Thibeaux.

Thibeaux said city-parish government is not seeking out big new chunks of land to add to the city limits, rather developers and rural residents are seeking out the city.

“They are coming to us at this point because they want the services,” he said.

While city services might attract, new and more stringent regulations for unincorporated areas might be pushing some developers out of the country.

“For the first time in the history of the world, it is more difficult to develop outside of the city rather than inside the city,” Durel said.

The City-Parish Council in 2012 approved requirements that call for buffer space, tree plantings in greenbelts and sometimes fences when a new development conflicts with what’s already in place.

City-Parish Zoning Manager Jim Parker said the new regulations seem to be a major factor in decisions by developers to seek annexation into the city, where they still face regulations but get the benefit of city services.

“That’s been a big driver,” he said.

The rising number of annexations in recent years come after a long lull following the consolidation of the once-separate city and parish governments in 1996.

Durel said the prior administration under former City-Parish President Walter Comeaux Jr. seemed uninterested in growing the city’s boundaries and oversaw policies that removed incentives for rural residents to seek out annexation into the city by allowing LUS to sell its water wholesale to outlying distribution systems.

“They gave away city services that took away the necessity of annexation into the city,” Durel said.

Now that more people want to join the city, the city might not want to annex just any piece of property.

City-Parish Chief Development Officer Kevin Blanchard said the city’s general annexation policy is to evaluate new annexations based on what it might cost for the city to provide services to the area compared to how much new tax revenue the annexation would bring in to the city.

He said the proposed annexation along Johnston Street, an area expected to see continued residential and commercial growth, seems like a good bet.

“Basically, the annexation pays for itself,” Blanchard said.

In the long run, he said, Lafayette and the five smaller municipalities in the parish would be better served by a coordinated annexation plan where all cities agree on what remaining unincorporated areas they plan to annex.

If patterns continue, almost all land in the parish will eventually be brought into one of the six municipalities, and having a plan in place could make that inevitable process smoother and less contentious.

“It’s time for us to acknowledge the handwriting on the wall,” he said.

Durel spoke at his State of the Parish address this year about trying to collaborate with the mayors of the smaller municipalities to develop an annexation plan, but the proposal is still a work in progress.

Durel had proposed a similar annexation plan at his speech in 2009, but the idea did not gain much traction at the time.