PORT ALLEN — The Atchafalaya Basin Levee Board is asking the state's Attorney General's Office to weigh in on whether the board has the authority to prohibit property owners from installing locked gates along the levee system.
At the center of the debate is an area of the levee in Iberville Parish where a property owner has installed a locked fence between Belmont Lane and U.S. 190 near Maringouin.
Matt Jewell, chairman of the Iberville Parish Council, urged the Levee Board to do what it can to retain access to the area, arguing that portion of the levee road could serve as a plausible evacuation route for Maringouin residents during emergency incidents and weather-related disasters.
"That is one of the largest railroad cities in the country. And lately, trains have started increasing their speed of travel through there," Jewell told the Levee Board at its meeting Wednesday in Port Allen.
Jewell said a large train derailment could wipe out most of the traditional evacuation routes out of the town, making the levee road the most viable option for escape.
Jewell said he intends to ask the Parish Council to support a resolution asking the Levee Board at its Sept. 19 meeting to keep the levee road open between Belmont Lane and U.S. 190.
"A locked gate on that levee is foolishness," Jewell told the board. "I hope and pray y'all will stand with us on this."
But whether the Levee Board has the authority to do so is at question, said board Chairman John Grezaffi.
In an interview before Wednesday's meeting, Grezaffi said the Levee Board's primary function is to oversee the maintenance and function of the Mississippi levee system within its boundaries. Trying to regulate parts of the levee that encroach onto the private properties is murkier legal waters, he said.
"The public has this misconception that they can just travel and roam up and down the levee," Grezaffi said. "But some of it (the levee) is still owned by property owners and they have concerns about folks going up on the levee and getting hurt. Then you'd have that victim trying to sue them."
In the past, Grezaffi said, the board has required property owners to obtain permits from the levee district before any fences or gates could be installed along the 300-miles of levee system under the board's authority. And property owners were also required to furnish to the board a copy of the keys to the locks so state and local officials could have access to the levee when needed.
The property at the center of the most recent debate hasn't been issued a permit but has already installed a gate, he said.
The property owner did not attend Wednesday's meeting.
"We need come clarity," Grezaffi said. "Who has the right to do what?"
The board's attorney, Nicholas Rockforte, presented the board with a previous AG opinion that explores a similar question.
In that Dec. 6, 2016 opinion, the AG's Office told the Red River, Atchafalaya and Bayou Boeuf Levee District it does not have the authority to compel private property owners to remove or open obstacles or gates to public transit on levees encumbering private property when no public right of way may exist otherwise.
"You did say early on that every situation is different," Grezaffi said to Rockforte during the meeting.
"Yes," he replied. "The topic brings up a quagmire of legal issues that will have to be dealt with."