The latest legal trouble at Lake Martin has been resolved, at least temporarily, thanks to a formal agreement between landowners and the state.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries dismissed its lawsuit in the 16th Judicial District Court against a group of landowners after the parties agreed to a consent order that grants public access to the lake's boat launch and limits liability for the landowners. The agreement, which was commended by the state attorney general and parish president, has also raised concerns by some property owners and lake advocates because it prevents the public from using a portion of the land along the lakeshore.
"I applaud the Chauffe-Hebert Family for their decision to keep open public entry to Lake Martin," said Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry in an emailed statement. "Their resolution not only allows locals and tourists to continue to access the duck hunting, fishing, boating, and birding on the Lake; but it also helps to ensure the wildlife and its habitat remain pristine.”
The consent order creates a public-access boundary around a peninsula beside the boat launch that is popular for picnicking, offshore fishing and launching paddleboats. The public will no longer be able to use the peninsula as part of the legal agreement "for the purposes of resolving this lawsuit and effecting this Consent Order."
Haywood "Woody" Martin, board member of the Friends of Lake Martin, said the nonprofit advocacy group is not happy with the consent order.
"This agreement totally leaves public interest out," Martin said in a phone interview. "There was nobody in the room representing the public interest at Lake Martin when they made that agreement. It was strictly a backdoor deal between the landowners and the attorney general's office."
As part of the legal agreement, the Lake Martin boat landing will be named for the original landowners, Rene and Eliza Chauffe.
Clifford Hebert, one of the 11 named defendants in the suit who agreed to the consent order, said he and the other family members still have questions about their rights that have yet to be answered by state attorneys. Hebert said the family has no specific plans for the now-private peninsula, other than to name it LaPointe for the smaller lake that was expanded in the 1950s to create the game and fish preserve now known as Lake Martin.
"We're not sure what exactly we can do with it," Hebert said in a phone interview. "I'm getting up in age, right at 80 years old, and I'd like to see everything settled before I pass on."
St. Martin Parish President Chester Cedars, a lawyer by trade who has long fought to maintain public access at the lake, said he doesn't see a problem with the agreement.
"I don't think it's going to impede the public use at all," Cedars said in a phone interview. "It's going to protect the area the family wanted to keep private for their own use."
Cedars said there are two priorities for the parish concerning Lake Martin at this point — to partner with the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to make repairs to the boat launch and boardwalk and to reinstate a commission to maintain the lake and public access at the lake.
Other landowners along the lake haven't been as optimistic about the new agreement because it grants the state a perpetual, uninterrupted and unencumbered servitude to only the landing property and not to the rest of the lake's shore, which was part of the original servitude created in the 1950s. They said the consent order could set a precedent that further restricts public access to the lake in the long run.
Their concerns stem from the outcome of an earlier lawsuit between the St. Martin Parish government and Bryan Champagne, who operates two businesses on the shore of the lake that violate parish zoning law. A district judge ruled in favor of Champagne in 2019, and a state appeals court narrowly agreed with the lower court's ruling in 2020. The Louisiana Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
In the more recent lawsuit, the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries specifically asked the court to declare that the state owns the public right-of-way at Lake Martin or has a servitude at the traditional public right-of-way for public access to the lake. It also asked the court to declare that the state owns the boat launch and associated structures and that they're for public use. The consent order dismissed the state's suit.
The outcomes of both court cases effectively allow Champagne to legally restrict public access to a portion of the lakeshore through his businesses, and the 11 landowners at the landing to legally restrict public access to the lake's peninsula.
"What Lake Martin really needs is for the parish and the landowners to come to some kind of agreement about allowing public access to a natural resource that was designed by the state as a fish and game preserve," Martin said. "That doesn't mean a fish and game preserve just for people with motorboats. That means a fish and game preserve for everybody."
The recent agreement has also attracted attention from the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy, which aims to foster understanding of the complex relationship between people and water.
"The consent order is clearly designed to keep the peace," said Mark S. Davis, the institute's director, in a phone interview. "We see it more as a ceasefire than the end to the disputes on Lake Martin, but we think it's a worthwhile step."
Davis said he or one of his colleagues may take a trip to St. Martin Parish soon to examine the condition of the lakeshore that's been the topic of two recent lawsuits.
"All the parties can say 'We're going to stop fighting, and we're never going to utter a word publicly again.' That wouldn't stop us because there's still unanswered questions, and we would like to see some answers. We're taking a look at it from the standpoint of the boundary between public and private and how those can change over time," Davis said.
He said understanding the Lake Martin legal saga is akin to watching Neil deGrasse Tyson discuss astronomy.
"I can watch him from here until the end of time, and I will not understand astronomy, just have an appreciation for it," Davis said. "And that's kind of where I am right now on Lake Martin. I've developed an appreciation for its value, but there's so much more digging to be done. In many ways, it's harder than astronomy because nobody can say 'This planet is mine.'"