Lawsuit to proceed to trial

LIVINGSTON — The Livingston Parish School Board’s lawsuit to establish ownership of a tract of land near French Settlement will move forward after a state district court judge on Monday ruled against the defendant landowners’ motion to dismiss the case.

The School Board filed suit in January against 51 landowners in a 143-acre tract just north of French Settlement that lies within the parish’s Section 16.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 initiated the rectangular survey of public lands, cutting the land into townships that were subdivided into 36 sections. In each township, Section 16 was given to the state in trust for the benefit of public education.

Property deeds for those 640-acre sections have always belonged to the states.

In Louisiana, oversight of Section 16 lands is left to individual school systems, rather than a state agency or commission.

Mineral rights and timber sales from the land could generate additional revenue for the district, Livingston school officials have said.

But three subdivisions have been built at least partially within Livingston Parish’s Section 16 — Colyell Campsites, Colyell Bay Campsites and Colyell Homesites — and many of the resulting lots are occupied by mobile homes or permanent structures.

The School Board alleges in the suit that the state has no record of ever having sold any of the tract. However, defense attorney Donnie Floyd said all current landowners can trace their titles to a man who bought the property in a tax sale in 1885, and another private citizen owned the tract as early as the 1830s or 1840s.

Defense attorneys argued that state law prevents the School Board from contesting the validity of a tax sale or the landowners’ ownership after so many years.

However, under the Louisiana Constitution such time limits cannot run against the state, School Board attorney Glen Petersen said.

Thus, if the land was not transferred legally into private ownership, statutory time limits cannot prevent the School Board from seeking to establish its rights to the land. But if the land was legally transferred out of the state’s trust, the time limits would apply.

Because the applicability of the time limits depends on the underlying question of ownership, state District Judge Wayne Ray Chutz deferred ruling on the issue and allowed the case to proceed toward trial.

Chutz also denied the landowners’ claims that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case or that Ascension Parish should be joined as a party.

The defense had argued that Ascension Parish is a necessary party to the case because a small part of Township 8 South, in which the Section 16 lands are located, lies in that parish.

However, the court ruled that Ascension Parish has no ownership interest in the tract of land at issue because all of Section 16 lies within Livingston Parish.