PORT ALLEN — City leaders will have to dust off their negotiating skills soon if they hope to retain the rights to a significant parcel of land donated to Port Allen decades ago by a family that now wants it back.
The property in question is a vacant lot on the corner of North Jefferson and Michigan avenues, across from the West Baton Rouge Community Center.
The property was once home to the building that served as City Hall and the headquarters of Port Allen Fire Department. In 2014, the city demolished the building, which was vacant for seven years after the city administration moved its complex to a newer building on Court Street.
The city’s Fire Department relocated to a newer facility on La. 1 in Port Allen.
The property is divided into three weirdly shaped lots. A 5,959-square-foot parcel labeled “Lot 2” is owned by the city. The other two parcels, which are 8,502 square feet and 12,293 square feet and labeled “Lots 1” and “13,” respectively, were donated by the Cohn family — a civic-minded family that also donated several other large parcels of land to other governing authorities throughout the parish.
In a Jan. 19 letter to Mayor Richard Lee, an attorney representing the successors of Cohn’s Subdivision Co. asks the city to return the family’s portion of the property because it’s no longer being used for public purposes.
“As a vacant property, the property (Lot 13) donated for use as headquarters for a fire department has unquestionably ceased to be used for the stipulated purpose, and under the terms of the donation, the property has reverted to my clients,” attorney George Bilbe wrote.
Bilbe says the same holds true for the second portion of land (Lot 1) the family donated to city for “municipal water works and other public municipal purposes.”
The family made its first donation June 25, 1925, the letter says. The donation of the second lot occurred on July 2, 1946.
“We just wanted to see whether the city shares our opinion that we are entitled to their return,” Bilbe said in a telephone interview last week. “The city wasn’t using it and were saying they wanted to transfer it to the parish.”
But based on a discussion officials had at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, it appears city leaders aren’t ready to let it go.
“At this point it’s an ongoing discussion,” City Attorney Lance Joseph told the council. “It is my opinion they are only entitled to having Lot 1 back. Lot 13 is a different story.”
“Lot 13 has the most value,” said Councilman R.J. Loupe.
The news puts a wrinkle in the council’s plan to allow the parish to use the lot as an additional parking lot for its community center across the street. In exchange, the parish has agreed to some drainage work the city needs done, officials said.
During the discussion Wednesday, Councilman Garry Hubble suggested using the property to build a standalone building for the city’s Police Department, which is now housed in City Hall.
“I think that would be the opportune spot,” Hubble said. “I think (the Police Department) should have their own building so they can be moved out of the smallest place in this one.”
But Councilman Hugh “Hootie” Riviere, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee, in a separate interview following the discussion said the city has too many other pressing matters it needs to address first before it considers such an expensive undertaking.
“We sat down with an engineering firm three weeks ago to go through our entire sewer system,” Riviere explained. “They came back with a list of 10 things that need to be addressed that, if we could snap our fingers and make it happen, would be $20 million to deal with.”
Riviere has his fingers crossed the city’s administration will be able to talk the family into letting the city retain its rights to the property.
“When we were trying to negotiate with them a few years back, one member of the family was playing hardball while the rest of the family was agreeable,” he said. “So, it’s too early to say what will happen right now.”
Riviere last week suggested the city sell its parcel, Lot 2, to the Cohn family. Several other council members agreed with the idea.
“We need to settle this,” Loupe said. “It’s almost ridiculous.”
Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.