The Louisiana Supreme Court announced Tuesday it would not hear a case between the St. Martin Parish government and a business that's highlighted public access problems at Lake Martin.

Parish government asked the state's highest court to review the case after narrowly losing an appeal in August. The St. Martin Parish Council unanimously voted in September to take its lawsuit to the Supreme Court in an effort to protect Lake Martin's wildlife and access for recreational users.

St. Martin Parish loses appeal against business owner operating at Lake Martin

The council's decision was supported by activists known as Friends of Lake Martin, who have pushed the parish for years to take action against Bryan Champagne, who operates two swamp tour businesses on the shore of the lake in violation of local zoning ordinance.

Haywood "Woody" Martin, a board member for the nonprofit organization, said Tuesday's decision by the Supreme Court has been met with disappointment.

"We're representing the public interest in preserving the natural resource," Martin said. "We're going to push the parish and the state to exercise their authority to protect the scenic beauty and ecological health of Lake Martin for the enjoyment of present and future generations."

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Champagne's store and swamp tours is pictured Wednesday, September 2, 2020, at Lake Martin in St. Martin Parish.

Parish leaders and outdoor enthusiasts have argued that Champagne's businesses blocked public access to the lake and could damage the environment by operating on the shore. It's the reason local ordinance doesn't allow construction of permanent structures in the first place.

In April 2019, a district judge denied the parish's petition for injunctive relief against his businesses, Champagne's Cajun Swamp Tours and the Wharf on Lake Martin, because Champagne had obtained the necessary permits through the parish and made substantial investments.

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A five-judge panel of the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal in Lake Charles agreed with the April 2019 ruling that Champagne's businesses could continue operating, even though zoning ordinance prohibits it.

In a dissenting opinion also published in the appeal court's August ruling, two of the five judges laid out their support for the parish's injunction lawsuit, calling out the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries for not intervening to preserve the body of water the office is tasked with maintaining.

Champagne said Tuesday's decision by the Supreme Court marked the end of a lengthy legal journey.

"I'm glad it's over," Champagne said. "It's been a long battle, but I'm glad it's finally finished with."

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Although the case may be closed for Champagne, there are still unanswered questions that remain at Lake Martin.

The recent litigation indirectly complicated the relationship between private landowners and government entities that have expressed concern over liabilities and responsibilities at the lake.

There are now barricades and ropes blocking access to parts of the lake, including a public boat launch that closed earlier this year after land owners couldn't come to an agreement with parish and state leaders.

"What happens next is kind of critical," Martin said. "This is a really valuable resource to have so close to Lafayette and the other surrounding communities here."


Email Megan Wyatt at mwyatt@theadvocate.com.