Attorney: River-use fight now a civil rights suit

Family: DWF actions unconstitutional

A Zachary family cannot immediately resume selling recreational-vehicle access to the Comite River, a federal judge ruled Monday in Baton Rouge.

U.S. District Judge Brian A. Jackson, however, also ruled he will retain authority over the family’s suit for the right to make money from their property along the waterway.

Donna U. Grodner, attorney for the family, said after the hearing: “We’re in federal court because this now is a civil rights suit.”

Attorneys for Louisiana declined to comment after the hearing.

Richard Shane Rush and his mother, Betty Holmes Rush, along with their Comite Dirt Pit Inc., sued the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries in November and alleged state officials had unconstitutionally shut down three of their businesses.

All of those businesses had operated on land adjacent to the Comite in the 9000 block of Zachary Deerford Road, according to the suit. That included timber harvesting, dirt mining and charging people in all-terrain vehicles for access through their property to the Comite River bed.

Family members say they completed a dirt-mining contract for $809,520 in December 2010, then received notice from Wildlife & Fisheries Secretary Robert J. Barham that they could not continue dirt sales from that location.

Ryan Michael Seidemann, an attorney for Barham, told Jackson on Monday that the family has complied with Wildlife & Fisheries directives and state court orders barring dirt excavation and timber harvesting within 100 feet of the Comite.

Seidemann added, though, that the family has no permit for selling access to the Comite by owners of recreational vehicles.

As for all-terrain vehicles roaring up and down the river bed, Seidemann argued, state officials believe the practice “is causing substantial damage … to that waterway.”

Grodner, attorney for the Rush family and Comite Dirt Pit, told Jackson state officials have yet to name a fish or other animal whose existence is threatened by the recreational vehicles.

Further, Grodner, argued: “This property is not state-owned.” And, Grodner said, state officials have not limited their interference in Rush business operations to a 100-foot buffer along the river.

Grodner said state orders have rendered the property worthless to the family.

In their suit, the Rushes contend their family owns the Comite’s bed along their property because the river remains shallow and no longer is navigable.

State officials contend the Comite is navigable, Seidemann told Jackson.

“Maybe there’s some (adverse) economic impact here,” Seidemann conceded. He later added, though: “The status quo is don’t mess with the river.”

The judge denied the family their requests for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction that would have allowed them to charge vehicle owners for access to the river across their land.

Jackson added, however, that he will retain authority over the suit and permit it to continue toward trial.