The St. Martin Parish Council will appeal a recent court ruling that favored a business owner operating at Lake Martin.

After discussing the lawsuit in private, the council unanimously agreed during its public meeting Tuesday to appeal an April court ruling that allowed a swamp tour business to continue operating on the shore of Lake Martin, even though the property isn't zoned for commercial use.

"Recommendations were made by the administration that we not give up," St. Martin Parish President Chester Cedars said. "We've been fighting this, and we'll continue to fight it."

Lake Martin enthusiasts crowded the meeting room to comment in support of the protected wildlife preserve and applauded the council's decision. It was their efforts that led to the parish filing a lawsuit against the business owner in 2016.

"It's a fabulous outcome," said Conni Castille, secretary of Friends of Lake Martin. "It's very exciting. There's hope that the zoning ordinance will be enforced."

None of the Lake Martin supporters spoke publicly at the meeting. They planned to until the parish attorney addressed them after the private executive session.

"There are some public comment forms of people who wanted to speak before a vote was taken," said Allan Durand. "Based on the comments that were made by the councilmen in there, if any of these folks want to come and speak against appealing, then come on up. If you're speaking for it, then my guess is you probably don't have to waste your time."

Three years of litigation between the St. Martin Parish Government and business-owner Bryan Champagne culminated last month when Judge Keith Comeaux ruled in favor of Champagne. According to the court ruling, Champagne's rights would be violated if his business were shut down, and the zoning ordinance in question was "poor at best."

Champagne's lawyer Greg Logan said he wasn't surprised by the decision to appeal.

"I think they had to take it off of their back whether to appeal or not and put it on the judges of the Third Circuit Court of Appeal," Logan said. "Based on the findings of fact by Judge Comeaux, I'm confident that the decision of the trial court will be affirmed."

Champagne, who owns The Wharf on Lake Martin and Champagne's Cajun Swamp Tours, obtained permits from St. Martin Parish in 2011 to build his business along Lake Martin, according to court documents. In 2013, he obtained the necessary permits to add a covered deck to the facility, court records show.

The parish admits in court records that the approval of the permits was a clerical error on its part. The property surrounding Lake Martin 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, has established a permanent structure on the lake that has grown over the years.

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 by operating on the shore.

"There's never been any credible evidence that wildlife is being negatively affected," Logan said. "And as far as public access is concerned, that was not public access to begin with. It's private land. It’s gotten out of control with people leaving trash and driving big vehicles and not respecting the property, so the land owner told Mr. Champagne to fence it off."

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