West Feliciana council to consider ferry landing settlement

The West Feliciana Parish Council has agreed to meet Sept. 15 to consider an ordinance addressing a possible settlement of the long-simmering dispute over the land bordering the former St. Francisville ferry landing.

A proposed ordinance would authorize Parish President Kevin Couhig to enter into a settlement with Lambert Gravel Company and the family of Councilman Ricky Lambert, but allow the council to revise any agreement without the need for a second ordinance.

The protracted dispute centers on a piece of property along the old La. 10 that the state turned over to the parish after the John James Audubon Bridge opened downstream from the ferry crossing in 2010.

The parish had built a concrete slab at the end of the road, which was meant to serve as a public boat launch. The parish also leased the land from the Lamberts to accommodate tour boats.

When the Lamberts used concrete barriers to bar public access to the property, the parish removed them. In 2012, Lambert Gravel Company and the succession of Paul A. Lambert Sr., father of council member Ricky Lambert, filed suit against the parish, claiming the parish trespassed when it removed the concrete barriers.

Proposed settlement documents posted on the parish website show that the parish would claim about seven acres bordering the Mississippi River under the deal, while the Lambert family would get almost 70 acres.

Exactly who could rightfully claim the property has been a matter of fervent contention. Councilwoman Lea Williams said she disagrees with the proposed settlement, which she characterized in a phone interview as severely restricting the public’s access to recreational areas they have always used, especially along Bayou Sara.

Williams, who noted that the parish had paid $1,000 a month to the Lamberts to lease some of the land since 1998, said she wants the parish to get that money back because the property actually belonged to the state.

Williams was the only council member Wednesday to vote against holding the special meeting. Council members Mel Percy, Melvin Young, Ricky Lambert, John Kean and Heather Howle voted in favor of having the meeting. Otis Wilson was absent.

After Wednesday’s meeting, District Attorney Sam D’Aquilla said the proposed ordinance is designed to ensure that if a settlement is reached, the council would be able to change the terms of the agreement if it wishes and authorize Couhig to sign it in one stroke.

Not spelling out the terms of the settlement in the ordinance simply gives the council the leeway to make changes without introducing a new ordinance, he said.

The legal intricacies caused some confusion at the meeting.

“All I’m trying to do is get proper public notice. This is trying to bypass that,” Kean said.

“Why is everything a conspiracy theory with you? If we have a settlement, I’m sure that everyone will get to see it,” Percy countered.

The terms of the settlement also would still have to be approved by the council in a public hearing, he said.

“I am concerned about Kevin (Couhig) negotiating on behalf of the parish,” Williams said. “Once we leave (the Lamberts) in possession of the property, they become owners of it.”

She expressed concern that the Lamberts would then be able to do whatever they want with the property, including having a trucking lease and keeping the public from using the best fishing spots on Bayou Sara.

“There is nothing in the settlement agreement that gives anything to anyone and there is nothing that says the Lamberts own anything,” Couhig said. “My whole motivation in seeking a settlement is financial. The parish has spent $300,000 on this.”

If a settlement is not reached, that figure could double, he said.