ST. FRANCISVILLE — By virtue of a tie, the West Feliciana Parish Council shot down a proposed ordinance that would have allowed Parish President Kevin Couhig to negotiate a settlement in a lawsuit over land bordering the former St. Francisville ferry landing.
With Councilman Ricky Lambert abstaining, the council vote was 3-3 for the proposed ordinance, which would have authorized Couhig to enter into a settlement with the Lambert Gravel Company, which is owned by Lambert’s family, and would have allowed the council to revise any agreement without the need for a second ordinance.
Council members Lea Williams, John Kean and Otis Wilson voted against the proposed ordinance while members Melvin Percy, Melvin Young and Heather Howle supported it.
A number of parish residents voiced concerns Monday about settling the lawsuit, which involves a disputed 73-acre tract of land located along the Mississippi River.
Susan Tully, who lives in Williams’ district, where the land is located, said she is against settling any lawsuit prematurely. “It’s like punting on second and three,” Tully said. “I’ve been told the parish has an excellent case.”
Her husband, Tom Tully, said, “This will be this council’s legacy — what you decided to do with that property.”
Plater Gooden said the parish should continue to pursue the lawsuit, even if it involves taking the matter to court, no matter the cost because ownership of the land remains at the heart of the dispute.
Much of the discussion and at times verbal sparring during the meeting revolved around the lawsuit, which was brought against the parish by the heirs of Paul Lambert Sr. and by the Lambert Gravel Company, which claim possession of the disputed property.
The legal battle began after the John James Audubon Bridge opened in 2011 and the state Department of Transportation and Development transferred the old La. 10 to the parish.
The parish then 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.
After the parish ceased lease payments, the Lamberts set up concrete barriers to prevent public access to the property north of the road. The parish then removed the barriers, and the Lamberts filed suit, 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 — were appraised in September 2013 with the smaller tract valued at $15,500 and the larger tract at $21,000.
Couhig has argued that a settlement with the Lambert heirs would avoid the ongoing expense of the lawsuit. The parish president said the parish has exhausted the $300,000 it had originally allocated for the lawsuit, with another $108,000 still owed.
“Where do I take the money from?” Couhig asked. “The council has to authorize where to take the fund balance from. We’re $108,000 behind and we have another month of bills on the way. It’s only going to get worse. These are hard decisions. Where is the money coming from?”
The council opted to defer the legal funding matter to its Finance Committee.