PLAQUEMINE — Owners of Alligator Bayou Swamp Tours are not entitled to monetary compensation from Iberville and Ascension parishes for opening Alligator Bayou’s floodgate, a judge has ruled.
Judge Thomas J. Kliebert Jr. ruled this month that the company had no private property rights on the bayou, records in 23rd Judicial District Court show.
Frank Bonifay, co-owner of Alligator Bayou Swamp Tours, on Thursday called the decision, “a sad day for business in Louisiana.”
Bonifay and his business partner, Jim Ragland, went to court to seek compensation on the basis of “inverse condemnation,” a legal term in which a private party can seek payment for land taken by a government entity for public use.
At issue was the March 2009 opening of the Alligator Bayou floodgate agreed upon by the governments of Iberville and Ascension parishes.
The floodgate in Iberville Parish is a 6-foot concrete culvert under Alligator Bayou Road that can be opened or closed with a metal gate.
Backwater flooding from the Amite River raises water in Bayou Manchac, which can then back up into Alligator Bayou and Spanish Lake.
The gate stops that flooding.
When left closed, the gate keeps water in the Alligator Bayou sub-basin.
The floodgate, built in 1951, had generally been kept closed since its construction.
The decision to open the gate stemmed from complaints from nearby landowners. They complained the closed gate kept too much water on their properties, limiting what they could do with their land and interfering with the natural rhythm of the swamp ecosystem.
Before the gate was opened, water in the bayou was high enough to permit the owners of Alligator Bayou Swamp Tours to offer the public pontoon boat tours of the scenic bayou area.
The business partners, who own land adjacent to the bayou, said they had to shut down their business shortly after the floodgate was opened and the water receded from their land and the adjacent bayou, court records show.
In a motion given to the judge, the business partners argue that they have a constitutionally protected right to operate a business on their land.
The closing of the floodgate, they asserted, is tantamount to “a situation where access to private, commercial property is taken by the state,” the records show.
The judge disagreed, ruling that the business, “doesn’t have a protected, private right in a public waterway.”
Bonifay called the judge’s ruling a blow to the hundreds of tourists and schoolchildren who toured Alligator Bayou Swamp each year.
“It’s a sad day when government can shut you down without so much as a phone call or even a meeting,” Bonifay said. “I thought we were in America.”
Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez said the opening of the floodgate was the best course of action to keep the area in its natural state.
“We have a healthier swamp this way,” he said.
Iberville Parish President Mitch Ourso said opening the gate was the right thing to do “to protect the life and property” of the citizens who live nearby.
“We meant no harm to anybody,” Ourso said. “I feel in my heart we did the right thing.”