The St. Martin Parish Council meeting Tuesday could be lively as elected officials consider appealing a recent court ruling that outraged supporters of Lake Martin.
Although the council's discussion will take place in a private executive session, Lake Martin enthusiasts are expected to crowd the public meeting to comment in support of the protected wildlife preserve.
"I think it's important to show solidarity, to show that this thing has support," said Conni Castille, who serves as secretary of Friends of Lake Martin. "We packed the courtroom, and we'll pack this meeting too."
Three years of litigation between the St. Martin Parish Government and business-owner Bryan Champagne culminated in that standing-room-only courtroom last month with a surprise ruling in favor of Champagne. Judge Keith Comeaux ruled that his swamp tour business could continue operating on the shore of Lake Martin, even though the property isn't zoned for commercial use.
"The court finds that Mr. Champagne's rights would be violated if the injunction would be enforced to shut him down," the ruling said. "The court also finds that the zoning ordinance in this particular case is poor at best. The court finds no evidence has been brought that the Constitution of Louisiana has been violated."
The parish council will privately discuss appealing the lawsuit Tuesday before voting on the matter publicly during the meeting.
"I understand the issues," said St. Martin Parish President Chester Cedars. "I understand the basis of the judge's decision. It is not an unreasonable decision by any means. I just don't think the judge is correct in the facts."
The "issues" Cedars refers to are complicated.
Champagne, who owns The Wharf on Lake Martin and Champagne's Cajun Swamp Tours, obtained a permit from St. Martin Parish in 2011 to locate his business on Lake Martin, according to court documents. The parish admits in court records that the permit approval was a clerical error on its part.
The property surrounding Lake Martin is classified as wetlands and is zoned only for portable business operations.
That's how other swamp tour companies operate at Lake Martin. They set up boats and signage in the morning and remove it in the evening.
But Champagne, who also operated a portable business at one time, built a permanent structure along the lake that has grown over the years. Ropes and fencing along the property with "keep out" and "no trespassing" signs now block public access to the swamp.
"The zoning classification doesn't permit any kind of commercial activity, but for whatever reason, the permit was issued in 2011," Cedars said. "He operated for over four-and-a-half years, and then the business took on a different character. That's when the parish filed suit to revoke his permit because he was operating outside the parameters of the permit."
Cedars actually filed the lawsuit against Champagne in 2016 in his capacity as the parish's attorney, a role he held until becoming parish president in 2018.
Friends of Lake Martin, the nonprofit that pushed the parish government to take action, voiced two primary issues with Champagne's operation.
The first is that the private business has blocked off public access to the lake and to the once popular fishing bank accessible to those without boats. The second is that the business could harm the environment and Lake Martin Game and Fish Preserve by operating on the shore.
"We were baffled. We were stunned by the judge's ruling," Castille said. "I hope the parish council chooses to appeal the ruling, and we'll go from there."
Champagne did not return phone messages left Monday by The Acadiana Advocate.
The St. Martin Parish Council meets at 5 p.m. Tuesday at 301 W. Port St. in St. Martinville.