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John Grezaffi, chairman of the Atchafalaya Basin Levee District, shows a spot along the levee system where a property owner has installed a locked gate and fence on Sept. 20, 2017, in Morganza, La. There is a growing debate for the levee board on whether it has the authority to force a property owner to keep levee gates open for use as public routes. 

ADVOCATE STAFF FILE PHOTO BY BILL FEIG

The Atchafalaya Basin Levee District board is temporarily backing off from approving construction for bike paths and/or walking trails along the Mississippi River levee system — at least until officials can strengthen some of the language in its current policy, which is at the center of an ongoing legal dispute. 

The levee district's Board of Commissioners believes it needs to paint a clearer picture of the requirements that other government agencies would have to meet if they want to build recreational trails along the levee. 

The board is taking the stance as West Baton Rouge Parish prepares for a court battle with several residents who own property along the levee and refused to let contractors complete a 5-mile bike and walking trail south of the Intracoastal Canal. 

"We taking another look at the process to make sure we got all our ducks in a row so we're not caught up in a similar situation like we were in West Baton Rouge," said John Grezaffi, chairman of the levee board. "We ended up going to court as much as everybody else in this deal but we really don't have a dog in the fight."

West Baton Rouge Parish in October asked a state district court judge for a temporary restraining order against four landowners who refused to give construction crews access to the levee to complete work on the parish's proposed West Baton Rouge Heritage Trailway.

After initially granting the parish's request, the judge dissolved the temporary order a month later and denied the parish's request for a preliminary injunction, which would have allowed West Baton Rouge the opportunity to complete the project.  

The landowners have argued the parish never got their permission to build along their property, a stipulation that is alluded to in the levee district's current bike path policy. 

West Baton Rouge Parish officials previously claimed they sent certified letters to at least 100 property owners about the project and held public meetings, none of which the four defendants attended. 

And Parish President Riley "Pee Wee" Berthelot also previously said the parish interpreted the stipulations requiring agreements from landowners applied only to those who were using their land for specific purposes, like livestock grazing.

Nicholas Rockforte, attorney for the Atchafalaya Basin Levee District, said the levee board might require that signed consent from landowners be presented to the board before it'll enter into agreements that allow other government agencies to piggyback on the legal servitudes the state brokered with property owners to build and maintain the levee system years ago. 

The Atchafalaya Levee District serves as the governing authority over the levees that snake throughout Pointe Coupee, West Baton Rouge, Iberville and St. Martin parishes and parts of Ascension, Assumption and St. Landry parishes. 

"I know it's a really tough situation for them — going out and running down titles for everyone that lives along a stretch of the levee," Rockforte said. "They often don't know who they need to reach out to until (the landowners) see an obvious sign, like a bike path being built, and start to kick up opposition." 

Rockforte said the levee board may even urge state Legislators to consider amending parts of the state statute that gives levee districts the power to build recreational trails along levee tops, which is why government agencies need the blessing of local levee boards to build the popular recreational trails. 

"That's really not what we do," Rockforte said. "But I'm not sure if there is any interest on the state level to do that."

John F Crawford II, attorney for the four defendants in the West Baton Rouge Parish case, has already criticized the state statute as being an infringement of upon the constitutional rights of landowners.

"It's an unconstitutional expansion of the servitude granted to the levee board," he said. "Even though they have the assignment … it doesn't change the fact that (the levees) are private property." 

The levee district would like to wait until after the judge makes a ruling in the West Baton Rouge legal dispute before amending its bike path policy. But should the matter drag on too long, Rockforte said, they might pull the trigger on making the changes in two months or so. 

"There are other municipalities who have interest in doing similar projects and we need to have something together about what our requirements are going to be," he said.

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.