ST. FRANCISVILLE — The West Feliciana Parish Council gave parish President Kevin Couhig the authority Monday to spend more than a half-million dollars to buy land around the former Mississippi River ferry landing or to file an expropriation lawsuit, if necessary.
The ordinance identifies the land as two tracts totaling 72 acres and fronting for 2,672 feet on the river.
The parish and heirs of the late Paul Lambert Sr. both claim ownership of the land, but the matter has been tied up in court for about five years without a resolution.
The ordinance sets out a different legal strategy, with the parish now saying the ownership is unknown.
Couhig said a recent appraisal by an expert in river frontage property set the value of the land at $540,000, a much greater amount than an appraisal done in the early stages of the ownership dispute.
The ordinance authorizes spending $540,000 for the land or depositing that amount with the Clerk of Court's registry if "the ownership is unknown" and an expropriation lawsuit is necessary to obtain title.
"Is the parish attorney going to file (a lawsuit) as if the parish is not aware of any claims of ownership?" asked L.T. Dupre, attorney for the Lambert estate.
Couhig and council members were noncommittal, however, on the next step.
Dupre also said the ordinance refers to tracts A and O but no map showing the tracts is attached to the document.
Couhig dismissed Dupre's concerns, however, the wording states the tracts' location.
"I think it's pretty clear," he said.
Couhig said the parish needs the property for access to the river in the event of public safety emergencies, access for public recreation and for the location of various recreation facilities for the benefit of parish residents and visitors who arrive by riverboat.
Couhig said the former Police Jury should have taken this approach to acquiring the land "in the first place."
He said the parish had spent about $700,000 in the legal dispute but expects the parish will be refunded some of those costs in the near future.
The parish recently sold some of its industrial park, and the council adjusted its general fund budget to put $228,000 into the account that Couhig said could be used for buying the land.
Councilman Melvin Young voted against the ordinance, which was supported by Sydney Picou Walker, Mel Percy, Bill May and John C. Thompson.
To begin the meeting, members elected Thompson as the council chairman and May as vice chairman.
On another matter, Walker was outvoted in her attempt to delay naming lawyer David Opperman to the parish fire district's board of commissioners.
Members Joe Wells, Daniel Stelly and Tracy Williams were reappointed without dissent, but Walker argued that Opperman's reappointment will "cause the fire board grief" because of "bad blood" between him and District Attorney Sam D'Aquilla.
Opperman unsuccessfully challenged D'Aquilla's re-election in a bitterly contested 2014 race, and sheriff's deputies arrested Opperman last month on a count of molestation of a juvenile stemming from a reported 2003 incident.
Percy said Walker, as a lawyer, should know that Opperman is entitled to a presumption of innocence and that Opperman performed a vital service to the board when he managed a flood of public records requests several years ago.
Walker said she took Percy's comment as a personal attack on her, saying her stance was because "he is cross-ways with the DA."
The council also agreed with Couhig's request to change the 2017-18 capital outlay budget to purchase a road-edge widening machine, a ditching machine and a pothole patching machine and to make repairs to the Como and Plettenberg road bridges.
The changes will require an allocation of $430,000 in "new money" and $450,000 in funds previously allocated for other work that Couhig said had been done with regular road maintenance funds.