The levees lining Louisiana’s waterways designed to protect communities from flooding are becoming a growing source of friction between the people who own the land they cut through and those who want to use them for recreation or as convenient shortcuts to get to their destinations.
And the disputes over who has access to the levees may soon be headed to the courts to resolve.
The mostly gravel-top levees along the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers and other waterways that snake through hunting camps and sprawling agricultural pastures are, by law, private property even though they are maintained using public tax dollars.
PORT ALLEN — The Atchafalaya Basin Levee Board is asking the state's Attorney General's Offi…
Young and old have traveled on the levees for more than a century, but access to them has become increasingly contentious. Some landowners have taken to putting up gates to keep people out.
The landowners say it’s to keep poachers away who hunt and fish on property they don’t own and because they fear they could be held liable should someone be injured on their property.
"I really hate it for people because I know there are a lot of good folks that used it, but for every good guy there's about 10 bad guys," said Steven Kent, a Pointe Coupee businessman who put a locked gate on a levee that crosses through his property.
Others say it’s a public safety hazard because a locked gate on a levee road could close off a vital evacuation route in the event of a hurricane, train derailment or flood.
A dispute over a recently-installed, locked gate on a levee road that cuts through 500 acres Kent owns not far from the Iberville Parish town of Maringouin has put a fresh focus on the issue.
"The public has never been forbidden to go down that levee," says Matt Jewell, chairman of the Iberville Parish Council. "The public's money has been going into the upkeep of that levee all these years. How can you justify using tax dollars on property that has all of a sudden become private?"
Iberville Parish leaders like Jewell upset over the gate appear poised to challenge legal precedent and a Louisiana Attorney General's opinion asserting the state's levee system isn't the public domain that many may have thought.
Kent, who put up the gate to block public access to the levee road between Belmont Lane and U.S. Highway 190, said he’s simply protecting his property and shielding himself from potential liability should someone be injured on his land.
After years of giving the public unrestricted access to his property, Kent said, he was fed up with teenagers and hunters wandering onto his property whenever they wanted to shoot and kill deer and other animals.
"We must have found 25 dead animals within the past year," Kent says. "There was a bunch of poaching going on. These guys would shoot deer from the top of the levee."
Trigger-happy trespassers aren't the only factor driving many property owners' decision to cut off the public's access to levee roads.
John Grezaffi, chairman of the Board of Commissioners for the Atchafalaya Levee Board, says there have also been reports of drivers running down cattle as they dart across levee roads.
And as more people riding ATVs use the levee roads for recreation, Grezaffi said, many property owners are worried they'll be liable if someone is hurt or killed while using a motorized recreational vehicle on their property.
"Times have changed," Grezaffi said. "When I was kid, I rode horses on the levee. Now we have four-wheelers and motorbikes. There's a lot going on that the public doesn't know exists, which has made people want to protect what they have."
Several property owners also complained about teens driving out on the levees to park and party.
Kent said he didn't expect his decision to put up a gate to protect his property to generate as much backlash as it has from locals who want to continue using the levee road. But their anger hasn't made him rethink what he did.
"People call me every day about it. Someone actually drove through the gate the other day, and we had to go back and put it back up," Kent said.
Jewell got the Iberville Parish Council to adopt a resolution recently asking that the Atchafalaya Basin Levee District, the governing authority that oversees the maintenance and upkeep of approximately 300 miles of the levee system within its eight-parish jurisdiction, to prohibit Kent from closing the levee road off to the public.
The town of Maringouin passed a similar resolution.
Iberville Parish officials argue the levee road on Kent's property is the most plausible evacuation route in that area for weather-related events or an emergency situation like a train derailment. Maringouin is home to a large railroad facility.
But the levee board isn't certain they have the authority to force Kent to keep the gate open. A 2016 opinion from the state's Attorney General Office has made the levee board's commissioners hesitant to weigh in on the brewing tension around Kent's situation.
That opinion details a similar situation in the Red River, Atchafalaya and Bayou Boeuf Levee District where local residents were trying to stop property owners from installing locked gates and fences along the 230 miles of levee under the district's governing authority.
The levee servitude the Army Corp of Engineers had to broker with property owners to create the levee system was described in the AG’s opinion as a "peculiar" legal agreement.
The opinion states that even though taxpayer money is used by local levee districts to maintain levee roadways, "the landowner's right to exclude the public from the use of his property is not affected."
"Additionally, the public has no right to use levees as public thoroughfares," the opinion reads.
Chris Roy, chairman of the Board of Commissioners for the Red River, Atchafalaya and Bayou Boeuf Levee District, estimates that approximately 30 miles of their levee system has been closed off to public use by property owners who have installed locked gates and fences.
"Landowners own the levee unless it has somehow been converted to a public road of some sort," Roy said.
However, those who have installed gates are required to provide the levee district with keys to the locks so that annual inspections can be conducted by the Corps, and so that officials will have access when the threat of flooding looms.
The Atchafalaya Levee Board places the same regulations on property owners who install locked gates along its levee system.
Grezaffi says they've never had an issue getting keys to locks from property owners, nor has there even been an issue getting access to parts of the levee closed off from public access when the board needed it.
Jacques LaCour, a Pointe Coupee Parish farmer, has installed four gates along the levee roads on his property but doesn't lock them.
Despite knowing he has a legal right to keep the public out, LaCour recognizes how quickly and unexpectedly emergency situations can arise and would rather parish officials not have to fish around for a key to get access to the levee when they need it.
"But at the end of the day, it's a property owner's prerogative to have a gate or not," he adds.
The Atchafalaya levee board has asked for another AG's opinion specific to the Kent situation because Grezaffi says every situation along the levee is different.
"What we do hinges on what the Attorney General's Office says," Grezaffi said.
Jewell is quick to point out that an opinion from the state Attorney General's Office is just that — an opinion, not law.
Should the Atchafalaya levee board decide they don't have the authority to tell Kent not to lock his gates, Jewell said, the parish could take their requests to the state and, if need be, to the federal level.
"I don't know where this thing is going to go," he said. "The public has never been forbidden to go down that levee. We're going to see about keeping it open. Hopefully someone will intervene and say they concur."