The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries took the first step this week in restoring public access at Lake Martin.

The state agency filed a lawsuit Monday in the 16th Judicial District Court against a group of landowners who earlier this year blocked access to the lake's public boat launch. It's something activists and parish leaders have wanted for years — intervention from the agency that's tasked with maintaining the public body of water — but the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has been hesitant to take any action while another lawsuit between parish government and a business owner at the lake worked its way through the court system.

Louisiana Supreme Court will not hear Lake Martin case between business, government

Last week, the Louisiana Supreme Court put an end to the earlier lawsuit when it declined to hear the case 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 2019 in favor of Champagne, and a state appeals court narrowly agreed with the lower court's ruling in an August opinion. 

"We're disappointed that the Supreme Court declined to entertain some of the vested rights issues that were raised in this litigation as well as some of the public trust doctrine issues that we presented to the lower courts," said St. Martin Parish President Chester Cedars. "I thought that those were very interesting issues and issues and questions of law that I think needed to be addressed."

Although the 2019 lawsuit did not directly involve the state or other properties along Lake Martin, it indirectly complicated the relationship between private landowners, parish government and the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, all of whom have expressed concern over liabilities and responsibilities at the body of water. Some property owners put up barricades and ropes along the lake's shore to limit public access to Lake Martin as the first lawsuit played out, citing concerns over personal liability after the district judge ruled in favor of Champagne's swamp tour businesses operating on in area long ago designated as a public right-of-way.

Who owns Lake Martin? That has yet to be determined; here's how the public can access it

Now, the state's new lawsuit, which names 11 people as defendants, could provide clarity for stakeholders at Lake Martin.

The lawsuit specifically asks 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 asks the court to declare that the state owns the boat launch and associated structures and that they're for public use. Another ask is for an order that would prohibit the defendants from blocking public access to and use of the boat launch.

Boat launch now closed at Lake Martin with no timeline for reopening; here's the latest

"The issue needs to be resolved," Cedars said. "And at this point, it seems that the litigation will hopefully bring this question of public use of the lake to a more expeditious conclusion one way or another. The parish will assist in any way it can."

The 11 people named as defendants in the lawsuit are heirs to the property where the boat launch is located. 

Clifford Hebert, whose family owns the largest share of the land in question, expressed mixed opinions about the lawsuit. Hebert had not yet read the lawsuit or consulted with an attorney when contacted Wednesday afternoon by a reporter.

"This is the truth: I'm not happy," Hebert said. "I don't see why the public should be happy, but the public is not aware of what went down here."

Hebert and the other property owners announced in February plans to close the boat launch, citing concerns about upkeep and liability. The public boat launch was constructed more than 50 years ago on their property with taxpayer funds through a mutual agreement that allowed the state and public access to the lake via the property.

On March 1, they barricaded access to the boat launch.

'It seems unfair': Lake Martin boat launch closure reiterates public access problems

At that time, another person who owns a share of the property said the family would eventually make the necessary repairs to the boat launch, reopen it to the public and charge boaters to launch. No one has announced a timeline for the project or actively worked on the launch in more than eight months since the closure.

Hebert said the launch never should have closed, just as Champagne never should have been allowed to construct permanent businesses on the lake side of the levee.

"He should not have been allowed to do what he did," Hebert said. "We shouldn't have been allowed to close the landing in the first place. Why wait until he won the lawsuit to deal with us closing the landing? It's been closed for a good, long while."

Alternatively, or in addition to the other asks of the court, the lawsuit is seeking to acquire the boat launch property from the family members through expropriation.

A spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries did not return messages left Wednesday by phone and email for this story.

Those who own adjacent land along Lake Martin have viewed the state's lawsuit favorably, overall, but they're also eying the possibility of the state purchasing the land. If that happens, some of the other landowners have expressed that they, too, want a cut of the deal.

"I'm glad to see it's coming to a head," Hebert said. "But it should be the same for all the landowners around the lake, not just us. We haven't been making money on the landing, others haven't been making money but someone has been rewarded for thinking he owns the lake. The state should have taken control of this a long time ago."

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