The public boat launch at Lake Martin is still expected to close Sunday, despite efforts from local leaders to find a temporary solution to a complicated problem.
St. Martin Parish leaders have been negotiating since Feb. 11 with the family members who own the property where the boat launch is located.
They have yet to come to an agreement.
"I think they're open to our proposal," said St. Martin Parish President Chester Cedars. "The family's been very professional, very cordial with me. Most of the family — at least the ones I've met with — have the same goals as we do. They want the public to be able to access the lake."
Lake Martin property owners announced a month ago that they would be closing the boat launch on their property March 1 because of liability concerns.
The two-lane boat launch is in dire need of repairs. Several planks are missing from the piers alongside it, and plywood boards cover particularly unstable areas.
Cedars offered to enter into an agreement with the landowners that would allow them to retain mineral rights on the property but grant St. Martin Parish access to repair the boat launch and maintain it going forward. The agreement would also remove all liability from the landowners.
With the March 1 closure looming, Cedars has become increasingly eager to reach a temporary solution so the public doesn't lose access to the lake. He sent the family an email Thursday morning that said the parish would assume all liabilities on the property — even without a formal agreement — if the family keeps the boat launch open to the public.
But the property owners are saying it's too little too late. They're still planning to close the boat launch Sunday.
"We're making a statement," said Emmaline Thibodeaux, one of 11 property owners in question. She's also the one Cedars has been corresponding with via email. "To make something happen, it has to be closed. To make everything right, it has to be closed. That's where we're at. That's where we're at."
The boat launch closure won't just impact locals and tourists who visit Lake Martin to paddle, fish, hunt, photograph and birdwatch. It will also impact swamp tour operators and the state employees who maintain the lake.
"Maybe hearts will be broken for a while, but there's nothing we can do about it," Thibodeaux said. "We have to do this. We have to do it."
Cedars said there is nothing the parish can do to stop the closure without express consent from the property owners.
"It's private property, just like your house," Cedars said. "I couldn't come to your house and demand you let people use the bathroom."
Neither the parish nor the state has an agreement with the property owners, and neither is actively maintaining the boat launch. Until now, they've kept mostly quiet about the situation because of the same ongoing litigation that has the landowners feeling vulnerable.
A district court ruled in favor of a private swamp tour business operated by Bryan Champagne on the shore of Lake Martin in April 2019 even though it violates a parish zoning ordinance.
St. Martin Parish appealed the ruling. Arguments were heard Jan. 7 by the higher court, but a decision hasn't been made in the case.
Cliff Hebert, Thibodeaux's brother and one of the 11 who own property where the boat launch is located, said he is concerned about the parish proposal to make improvements to the boat launch.
"It's gotten to the point now where we might have to wait another three years for this case to continue through court," Hebert said. "It's not right for the parish to come and spend a whole lot of money if there's no rules and they're going to let landowners do what they want. That's not what this lake was built for. That's not what our relatives agreed to."
Hebert said his family is ultimately hoping for a court ruling that will prohibit Champagne from operating on the shore of Lake Martin and will provide clarity for landowners and government entities so public access isn't an issue going forward.
In the meantime, Cedars said he's hoping the parish and the landowners can come to a formal agreement so public access at the lake won't depend on the court decision.
"Wildlife and Fisheries agrees with the parish 100 percent," Cedars said. "Wildlife and Fisheries also agrees they would help maintain and repair the boat launch if it could ever enter into the public domain. That would require a written agreement because the land is privately owned, and you cannot use public money to improve private land. It's got to be given to the government through a written agreement. That's the first step we have to take, and we want to take it. We want to do something."
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