St. Francisville ferry landing dispute to come before council Monday _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by JAMES MINTON -- Passengers on the Mississippi River tour boat American Queen disembark at the old St. Francisville ferry landing in March 2013.

The West Feliciana Parish Council will consider an ordinance Monday that would allow Parish President Kevin Couhig to negotiate a settlement in a lawsuit over land bordering the former St. Francisville ferry landing.

The proposed ordinance would authorize Couhig to enter into a settlement with the Lambert Gravel Company and the family of Councilman Ricky Lambert but allow the council to revise any agreement without the need for a second ordinance.

The lawsuit involves access to a roughly 73-acre tract of land and was filed by the heirs of Paul Lambert Sr., who is Councilman Ricky Lambert’s father, and the Lambert Gravel Company against West Feliciana Parish.

The legal battle began after the John James Audubon Bridge opened in 2011 and the state Department of Transportation and Development transferred a parcel of land along the old La. 10 to the parish.

The parish had built a concrete slab at the end of the road that was intended for use as a public boat launch. Since 1998, the parish had paid the Lamberts $1,000 a month for use of the property to accommodate visiting tour boats.

When the parish ceased lease payments, the Lamberts set up concrete barriers to prevent public access to the property. The parish then removed the barriers, and the Lamberts filed suit against the parish, claiming the parish trespassed when its workers removed the barriers.

The two tracts of land — one 31.12 acres and the other 41.9 acres — front Ferdinand Street and were appraised by The Lakvold Group of Baton Rouge in September 2013 with the smaller tract valued at $15,500 and the larger tract at $21,000.

So far, Couhig said, the parish has spent more than $400,000 on the lawsuit.

“Communities are like families,” Couhig said. “There are lots of things we’d like to do but you can’t afford them all. It’s about making choices — should we spend it on this or on something else like roads and bridges.”

Proposed settlement documents that were posted on the parish website showed that the parish would claim about 7 acres bordering the Mississippi River under the deal while the Lambert family would get almost 70 acres.

Couhig said the purpose of his settlement offer isn’t to decide ownership of the riverfront property. Instead, he wants to keep the parish from spending any more money in search of a legal judgment. He said proceeding further would likely entail mediation, a trial and then an appeal. That process would more than double the amount of money the parish has already spent.

“The biggest problem is even if we win, we win nothing,” Couhig said. “If we could determine clear title, then it might be worth it. There is no title on the property. We (the parish) know we own the road and the boat launch.”

Apparently an alternative settlement proposal will be made by Parish Council Vice-Chairman John Kean.

Kean said Sunday he wanted to offer his proposal as an alternative to Couhig’s plan, and he’ll formally present it to the council to consider at its Monday’s meeting.

His proposal places limits on the Lambert Gravel Company’s use of the property and ensures the public’s unimpeded access to Bayou Sara and the Mississippi River.

“I’m going to offer it as something else for the council to think about,” said Kean. “Part of the problem is the riverfront has always been used in a public way and I want to make sure that people will still be able to use it and fish it like they always have.”

Couhig said Sunday he has not read Kean’s proposal.

“If we can get something better, more power to him,” Couhig said.

However, Couhig said that as far as he knows, Kean has not had a meeting and negotiated with the Lamberts.

“Until both sides sit down and negotiate — with both sides agreeing to a compromise, it’s just a wish list,” Couhig said.

The special meeting to consider the proposed settlement ordinance is set for 5 p.m. in the Parish Council Meeting Room on the second floor of the Courthouse Annex, 4785 Prosperity Street, in St. Francisville. It will be followed by the regular Parish Council meeting at 5:30 p.m. in the same room.