Lawsuit filed over floodgate pumps

Frank Bonifay, owner of the defunct Alligator Bayou Swamp Tours, is suing Ascension Parish over two floating pumps parish drainage officials installed temporarily at the Frog Bayou floodgate on Bayou Manchac a little more than a year ago.

The rented pumps, which were removed several months after they were installed, prevented flooding of homes in the Bluff Swamp area of the Spanish Lake Basin after severe rains in December 2012 and January 2013, parish officials have said.

Use of temporary pumps at Frog Bayou during severe events also figures in the Ascension Parish drainage district’s long-term plans to improve standing drainage problems on Ascension’s side of the 13,000-acre Spanish Lake Basin.

Bonifay owns more than 1,200 acres in the Spanish Lake Basin and his property includes the Frog Bayou floodgate and Alligator Bayou floodgate, both of which are critical to draining the entire basin, according to parish officials.

The two floodgates are only several hundred feet apart and flow into Bayou Manchac and ultimately into the Amite River.

This lawsuit and past lawsuits have pitted parish officials’ efforts to assert their control over the floodgates, which they see as critical to drainage for surrounding properties and homes, against Bonifay’s efforts to protect the rights to his property.

Bonifay and his land company, Spanish Lake Wildlife Refuge and Botanical Gardens Inc., the two plaintiffs in the lawsuit, are asking a state district judge to declare that Ascension Parish cannot install “a pumping station of any type” on his property at Frog Bayou and is seeking damages for work related to the temporary pumps’ installation.

The suit, which involves the terms of a 1959 access servitude at the Frog Bayou floodgate, is the latest salvo in the ongoing battle between Bonifay and Ascension and Iberville parishes over use of the Frog Bayou floodgate and the neighboring Alligator Bayou floodgate.

Even though the two floodgates are only a few hundred feet apart, they are in different parishes. The Frog Bayou gate in Ascension Parish drains the Bluff Swamp, which is on the eastern side of the Spanish Lake Basin and is generally separated from the rest of the basin by a ridge and an old spoil bank.

The rest of the basin is drained by the Alligator Bayou gate in Iberville Parish.

Filed Feb. 21 in 23rd Judicial District Court in Ascension Parish, Bonifay’s suit accuses parish officials of a “persistent pattern” of willfully ignoring their own notification rules when officials set up the temporary pumps and later built permanent pump discharge lines.

“We contend that they should have at least touched base with the property owner before they did something like that,” said Bonifay’s attorney, Glen Petersen. “There was quite a bit of work done.”

The suit asks a judge to block Ascension Parish from installing the pumps again until the parish renegotiates the terms of the servitude or buys the necessary property.

Just down Alligator Bayou Road from the Frog Bayou floodgate at the Alligator Bayou floodgate, Iberville Parish is trying to expropriate about 1.3 acres of Bonifay’s property to build a dock and to dredge and possibly build a new permanent pump station.

Iberville sued Bonifay and his land company Aug. 13 in Iberville Parish. The case was set to go to trial Feb. 27 and Feb. 28, but has been continued, attorneys said.

In 2009, control of the Alligator Bayou floodgate was the subject of litigation between Ascension and Iberville officials and Bonifay.

Bonifay accused parish officials of illegally taking his property by changing how the floodgate was operated and, as a result, lowering water levels so he could no longer run swamp tours.

That claim was rejected all the way to the state Supreme Court, but the final dismissal order remains on appeal.

The newest suit in Ascension Parish follows months of closed-door negotiations between Bonifay and parish officials.

In that suit, Bonifay said he does not have a complaint with the installation of the pumps, but he does take issue with parish drainage officials when they dug out part of Frog Bayou in February and March, installed two permanent pump discharge lines under Alligator Bayou Road and destroyed trees and shrubs along its banks, the suit says. The suit also alleges Bonifay’s parking lot was damaged.

Temporary pump discharge lines were installed on top of Alligator Bayou Road, but they blocked the road and forced its closure for several weeks.

An Ascension Parish government spokesman, Lester Kenyon, declined to make East Ascension Drainage Director Bill Roux available for comment on the litigation, but parish officials have long contended they have drainage access rights to Frog Bayou and the floodgate.

East Ascension drainage attorney Lindsey Manda said Bonifay asked for $55,000 for the lost trees, but case law does not support that kind of settlement. She said if trees are in the servitude and impair drainage, they can be removed and are not “compensible.”

“There just wasn’t anything to justify that kind of” settlement, Manda said.

She added parish officials wanted to talk with Bonifay about replacing his fence and some of the other damage, but Bonifay threw them off his property.

Kelly Haggar, another Bonifay attorney in the suit, said drainage officials have discussed various plans to improve drainage in the Bluff Swamp that involves draining water through Frog Bayou and Bonifay’s property.

But, Haggar contends, while the Frog Bayou dispute lingers, parish officials have refused to talk with Bonifay. Haggar said Bonifay is willing to talk with them.

“There is something really wrong about people planning all kinds of stuff on your land without meeting with you,” Haggar said.