Using it while they can — A fisherman takes advantage of the final weeks of use of the Lake Martin boat launch. Owners of the property say they are closing the ramp for repairs, but one owner told the Teche News they are forcing the issue at this time to bring clarity to the question of legal liability. No date for possible reopening ihas been mentioned.(Karl Jeter)
Lake’s boat launch set for closure
The long-running struggle between Lake Martin users, land owners and a tangled web of government bodies and non-profits has finally reached the point of full disfunction. Owners of the boat launch area plan to close it to public access at the end of February, and no reopening date is in sight.
The problem at the heart of the current situation is, at least partly, the result of a 1982 decision by the state legislature to dissolve a number of special-purpose commissions, including the one with jurisdiction over Lake Martin. That commission’s responsibilities then came under the umbrella of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
The lake, as it exists today, was created in the 1950s by the construction of the levee system using taxpayer funds. The levees converted a 200-acre lake and flood-prone surrounding area into a stable 800-acre fish and game preserve. Access to the lake for recreational purposes was guaranteed under an accompanying servitude agreement.
Some owners believe that the servitude agreement dissolved with that special regional commission in 1982.
The legal limbo that has existed since then has left no public entity with responsibility for maintenance of facilities on the Rookery Road side of the lake. The boat ramp and steadily-deteriorating docks have become a hazard. Since it is on private property, state law prohibits the expenditure of public funds for maintenance.
An informal agreement has allowed for parish maintenance of Rookery Road for many years. But the atmosphere of cooperation has become stressed since tour boat operator Bryan Champagne violated parish zoning. He was granted a limited permit in 2011 to build a temporary bait shop on the lake.
Parish government responded slowly as Champagne’s operation grew into a collection of permanent structures, signs, flags, ropes, fencing and a reportedly non-compliant sewage system.
Despite being in violation of zoning and Wildlife and Fisheries rules, it was given an OK in a 16th Judicial District Court ruling when the parish’s case against Champagne was heard in April of 2019. The parish appealed the decision and the Third Circuit Court of Appeal is expected to issue a ruling in the coming weeks.
The present closure situation will not be affected by the appeals court ruling, however. The owners of the landing area say legal conditions that currently exist expose them to liability. But that would seem to depend on whether the servitude continues to exist or not. That question will probably take much longer to resolve.
The southwestern half of the lake and shoreline, including the back portion of the levee and walking trail, is the property of the Nature Conservancy. When the landing closes, limited canoe and kayak access will be available at the small access point installed by the Nature Conservancy at the end of Rookery Road. Parking there will quickly become an issue, however.
The tour operators that depend on use of the boat ramp will be out of luck. Only Champagne will be left with tour boat access to the lake.