ST. FRANCISVILLE — Twentieth Judicial District Court Judge Betsy Jones ruled Friday in favor of Lambert Gravel Company and the heirs of Paul A. Lambert Sr. in a dispute over a piece of Mississippi River-front property that so far has cost West Feliciana Parish taxpayers $572,000.
The Lamberts “are found to be in possession of the land discussed here today,” Jones said in announcing her decision.
The ruling does not resolve the central ownership issue of the land, but it instead recognizes the Lamberts’ right to possess the property free of any further disturbance from the parish.
The parish then built a concrete slab at the end of the road 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 the 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.
“I think it was an equitable result,” the Lamberts’ attorney, Len Kilgore, of Kean Miller, said of Friday’s ruling. “It remains to be seen (what the next step is). The ball is in the parish’s court.”
Attorney Dennis Blunt, of Phelps Dunbar, one of three attorneys who represented the parish in the courtroom, said, “I report the decision to my client, and my client determines what they want to do moving forward.”
Parish President Kevin Couhig has argued repeatedly to the Parish Council that a settlement with the Lambert heirs would avoid further expense of the lawsuit. He also has sought a compromise that would have ended the costly litigation. At the April 27 council meeting, Couhig said the legal bills so far have added up to $572,580, just through the end of February, with more bills expected.
“Like most of the people in this parish, I’ve felt for a long time that is really a terrible waste of the public’s money to pursue this lawsuit. And we’re going to figure out what the bill is through today and figure out how to get the council to pay that bill,” Couhig said. “Any legal action that the council intends to pursue beyond this point, they’re going to have to get a veto-proof vote on any additional funds because I’m not going to spend any more of the parish’s money pursuing this foolishness without that kind of majority telling me I have to.”
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.
“Since the beginning of this action, there have been better ways for the parish to become owners of this property if that’s the real desire of the parish,” Couhig said.
Councilwoman Lea Williams, who has often disputed the Lamberts’ right to ownership of the property, said after the ruling, “It’s a sad day for the public and the members of West Feliciana Parish who’ve used that land forever.
“I wish she would have deliberated about it a bit, but she had her decision written up already,” Williams said. “I wish we would go to the Court of Appeal if we could afford it.”
The parish has a purchase agreement on two lots south of the disputed property for a future docking facility for riverboats and some additional land for recreation.