ST. FRANCISVILLE — The West Feliciana Parish Council voted Monday against the introduction of an ordinance to dismiss all claims concerning the ongoing lawsuit over a disputed parcel of land adjoining the Mississippi River.
The 3-3 vote with one abstention means the suit against the parish will proceed toward a March hearing date on two summary judgments.
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 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.
If the council had supported the introduction of the ordinance, it would have proceeded to a public hearing at the next council meeting and then a likely vote to dismiss legal claims and counterclaims for the property.
Prior to the vote, Parish President Kevin Couhig told the council that so far, the parish has spent more than $509,000 to defend itself. He said he had earlier in the day discussed the suit with the parish’s attorney in the case, who estimates the costs will continue at a rate of $10,000 per week leading up to a March hearing date for two summary judgments in the case.
“It will cost more of $600,000 to $650,000,” Couhig said. “This is a judicial ruling on whether we disturbed their property or not. It does not deal with who owns the property.”
Couhig estimates the cost could reach $750,000 before it goes to trial to determine ownership of the property. So far, the council has only approved $500,000 toward the suit.
“We’re not close to finishing,” Couhig said. “We have to decide if we want to continue to spend money, and where we want to take the money from.”
Couhig said because the suit doesn’t get to the core of the dispute — ownership of the land — he would rather deal with ownership by seeking alternative solutions.
“I’d like to see if we can’t hammer this out between the parties,” Couhig said.
Voting to dismiss the suit were council members Heather Howle, Mel Percy and Melvin Young. Voting against were John Ken, Leah Williams and Otis Wilson. Ricky Lambert abstained, meaning the measure failed because of a tie vote.
Afterward, Percy told the council, “this was to set a public hearing date. I don’t know how anyone on this council can be opposed.”