PORT ALLEN — There's a chance West Baton Rouge Parish won't be able to complete its 5-mile recreational trail and bike path along the Mississippi River levee after a state district court judge on Monday sided with landowners challenging the parish's authority to encroach on their property.
Judge Alvin Batiste on Monday dissolved the temporary restraining order he issued to the parish last month against several property owners who refused to let construction crews onto the levee-fronted properties to build the bike path and walking trail.
The judge also denied the parish's request for a preliminary injunction, a decision that places the million-dollar project in limbo until the matter likely goes to trial early next year.
Parish President Riley "Pee Wee" Berthelot did not return calls Monday to comment on the ruling. He was one of several witnesses called to stand during Monday's court hearing to testify on the parish's behalf.
The parish in October asked the court to intervene in its efforts to complete the project — called the West Baton Rouge Heritage Trailway — claiming Joseph Tullier, Rae Tullier, Barton Tullier and Phillip Debenedetto had used locked gates, vehicles and made verbal threats to block contractors from accessing their properties.
PORT ALLEN — West Baton Rouge Parish's efforts to complete a 5-mile recreational trail and bike path along parts of the Mississippi River leve…
Batiste granted the parish a 10-day restraining order that got extended to 5 p.m. Monday.
That allowed the parish to complete a lot of the overlay work for the path, but Berthelot said there are still finishing touches that need to be done.
"The temporary restraining order was improperly granted," John Crawford, attorney for the defendants, said after Monday's hearing. "As it stands right now, the Parish Council has no right to use the levee servitude."
Most of the legal arguments touch on conflicting state law and attorney general opinions on the rights of landowners with property along the Mississippi levee system.
The case's outcome could affect areas of Iberville and Pointe Coupee parishes where government entities have joined in asking the Atchafalaya Basin Levee District, the governing authority that oversees the maintenance of the levee system within its eight-parish jurisdiction, to stop a property owner from using a locked gate to keep the public from using the levee road that cuts through his property.
West Baton Rouge Parish in 2012 entered into an agreement with the Levee Board to gain easements allowing the parish to construct the bike path and walking trails along the levee top.
West Baton Rouge Parish is entering the final phases of construction of a 5-mile long recreational trail and bike path, preparing to pave a se…
But Crawford argued the parish did not follow the certain stipulations in the agreement, specifically the section requiring the parish to notify and gain permission from property owners before starting construction.
"Not all landowners gave their permission," Crawford told the court, "(and) the cooperative endeavor agreement doesn't allow the parish the same rights to the levee servitude granted to the Levee District for maintenance and upkeep."
The parish's attorney, Louis Delahaye, argued the opposite, quoting parts of La. Revised Statue 38:301, which states the servitude granted to the governing bodies that oversee various parts of the Mississippi River levee system includes the construction of bicycle paths and walkways along the levee tops.
During his interview with The Advocate after the court hearing, Crawford called the state statute "unconstitutional" because it gives the public access to private property without due process.
"I have many landowners contacting me who didn't object but are entitled to compensation for the taking of their property," Crawford said.
As for the notification to landowners, Berthelot testified the parish only notified landowners who had obstructions, like livestock fencing, in the path of the project or those using their property for a specified purpose.
The parish also held a few modestly attended public meetings to discuss the details of the project.
"We tried to work with everyone we could," Berthelot said.
William Tyson, executive director for the Atchafalaya Basin Levee District, in earlier testimony said the levee board assumed the parish would contact all the landowners before starting the project.
"Interpretations vary," Tyson said.
In his ruling Monday, Batiste didn't weigh in on the rights of the property owners versus the parish's. In addition to denying the preliminary injunction and dissolving the temporary restraining order, he said the parish would need to get the Levee District to either join in the lawsuit against the defendants or give the parish the authority to do so moving forward because state law assigns the right to build levee-top trails to the the governing levee and drainage boards, not the Parish Council.
He also encouraged both sides to come to a compromise.
"You heard testimony today about what the bike path means to the community," Batiste said to the defendants. "I think you can reach a compromise … especially when you consider the amount of expenditures going into doing it."