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This is a spot along the levee system where a property owner has installed a locked gate and fence on Sept. 20, 2017, in Morganza. There is a growing debate for the levee board surrounding whether or not it has the authority to force a property owner to keep levee gates open for use as public routes. Access to levee tops has now become a legal issue in West Baton Rouge Parish. 

ADVOCATE STAFF FILE PHOTO BY BILL FEIG

PORT ALLEN — West Baton Rouge Parish's efforts to complete a 5-mile recreational trail and bike path along parts of the Mississippi River levee system will most likely end up in court. 

The parish is seeking legal action against four residents who own property abutting the levee, claiming the landowners have used locked gates, vehicles and made verbal threats with guns to block contractors crews from accessing their properties. 

An 18th Judicial District Court judge last week granted the parish a 10-day temporary restraining order against the property owners so construction on the project's final phase could resume, but parties on both sides are headed to court Oct. 17, when a judge will hear arguments before making a final decision on the parish's request for a permanent restraining order.

"This is a nearly million-dollar project," Parish President Riley "Pee Wee" Berthelot said. "If we don't get it done within a certain amount of time, we could lose the (grant) funding for it and then I'd have to come up with all that money to finish it.

"They're saying it's their property and we're taking their rights away," Berthelot added. "These are just people that are hard to reason with and work something out." 

Officials with the Atchafalaya Basin Levee District, the governing authority that oversees the maintenance and upkeep of the levee system within its eight-parish jurisdiction, is staying out of the brewing legal dispute.

Levee Board Chairman John Grezaffi says the parish is having issues now because it didn't properly get consent to do the work from the property owners. 

"If they didn't do their homework, that's on them," Grezaffi said. "The landowners are not impeding anything we're doing, so this is between the parish and them."

The rights of landowners with property along the levee system has become a hot-button issue. The Levee Board is currently waiting on a legal opinion from the state's Attorney General Office regarding a dispute in Pointe Coupee Parish where a property owner has installed a locked gate along a levee road routinely traveled by locals. 

Named as defendants in West Baton Rouge Parish's levee conflict are Joseph Tullier, Rae Tullier, Barton Tullier and Phillip Debenedetto. The Tulliers did not return phone calls Monday. Efforts by The Advocate to reach Debenedetto were unsuccessful. 

The Tullier properties are in the 4200 block of South River Road near the Port Allen/Brusly town limits. Debenedetto's property sits in the 4900 block of South River Road. 

The properties fall within the final 4-mile stretch of what is to become the West Baton Rouge Heritage Trailway. This phase includes overlaying concrete across the levee top near the Port Allen city limits into the town of Addis, where bike lanes and sidewalks will link the levee-top trail to Joe MyHand Park in Addis and Alexander Park in Brusly. 

The new trail will connect to the existing bike path and recreation trail the path overlaid in 2015 within Brusly.

In 2012, the parish 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. 

According to that agreement, the parish had to obtain all the required authorizations, permits and permissions from "all necessary persons and agencies" associated with the levee system. 

Another stipulation mandates that the parish "make arrangements with existing owners … to make the area compatible for use by all parties."  

Berthelot said the parish sent out certified letters to approximately 100 property owners and held public meetings to address any concerns. The four defendants named in the temporary restraining order neither responded to the letters nor attended those meetings, he added. 

And Berthelot said the parish interpreted the stipulations requiring agreements that needed to be reached were just with the property owners who were using their land for specific purposes, which commonly means for livestock grazing. 

"We think our interpretation is right," Berthelot said. "Maybe we're wrong, but we assumed we had no issues." 

Berthelot said the parish did meet Monday with the Levee Board and Debenedetto and the parish president said they might be able to settle Debenedetto's concerns before heading to court. The parish will spend the next few days trying to do the same with the Tullier family, he said. 

"We had so many residents who couldn't wait to see this done that we really didn't see this coming," Berthelot said about the legal battle. "We think it's very clear the law is on our side in this."

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.