By Karen Gadbois, The Lens staff writer |
One of the great philosophical conundrums of our time played out before the Neighborhood Conservation Committee this week: when is a house a billboard (and vice versa.)
At issue was the city’s desire to demolish a blighted Ninth Ward shotgun alongside the old concrete bridge that carries Claiborne Avenue up over the railroad yard near Franklin Avenue.
What makes the house distinctive is the giant billboard not just near the house but squatting on top of it. Assessor’s records place the value of the house at $5,300 – about what a well-placed billboard throws off in rental income every few months, according to industry sources.
The city Office of Code Enforcement applied for the demolition and said it plans to use FEMA funds to knock the house down.
The committee, which oversees demolitions across a wide swath of the city, heard what amounted to a chicken-or-egg argument as they tried to figure out which came first – the billboard or the house – and who owned what.
One member of the committee suggested the house was there before the billboard, but another said the foundation for the billboard was actually inside the house. In any event, the large support poles for the billboard run right through the roof and these days probably play a structural role in the shotgun as well.
The committee spent some of the session trying to determine the actual owner of the property, named on the assessor’s website as Industrial Outdoor Display, a Metairie based firm owned by the estate of Edmond and Eunice Brignac.
The billboard company, CBS Outdoor, said they purchased “the asset” some time ago and that they maintain the billboard but not the house. While they were prepared to yield to the city’s yen to demolish the house as part of the Landrieu administration’s ongoing “war on blight,” they said they wanted to make sure the billboard stayed put.
That complicates things. Most blighted houses are mowed down with a few quick passes by a bulldozer or claw. Disentangling a house from a billboard’s uprights is more exacting work and anyway, partial demolitions – which is what this becomes if the billboard remains standing — are never allowed.
Several committee members questioned the legitimacy of using FEMA funds to demolish a house that is obviously a commercial money-maker for the property owner. Upkeep is an owner’s burden, not the state’s.
The description on file with the assessor does not list the billboard as part of the house.
That’s consistent with Louisiana tax law, according to New Orleans assessor Erroll Williams. Billboards are listed on the business owner’s personal property self-reporting form, and their value can be kept confidential, Williams advised in an email to The Lens. “While we believe that structures like these are permanent improvements and should be treated as real estate, [Louisiana Tax Commission] guidelines do not allow us to do so,” Williams wrote.
However venerable a part of the neighborhood, the house with the billboard growing out of its roof got no sympathy from the preservation committee. They voted to demolish the house – while somehow saving the billboard.